story by Michael Shapiro
photo by Jack Wolford
Back in 1929, when 22-year-old Shizuko Teshima took over her father’s general store in Honalo, there was no electricity. She and her husband Fumio had blocks of ice trucked in from Hilo, kept cold with Hawaiian sea salt. They worked by the light of kerosene lamps late at night, when it was cool, grinding the blocks for ice cream.
By World War II, when GIs would come up the hill for ice cream, electricity had come to the sleepy Kona town. “I learned a lot from the soldiers,” she says. “They taught me how to make hamburgers. I didn’t know to mix in bread crumbs.” In 1960, the general store became Teshima’s restaurant, where Grandma Teshima, now 101 years old, is still the matriarch of this venerable Kona institution. Despite (or perhaps because of) its downscale décor, Teshima’s is beloved by regulars for its amiable, rubber slipper atmosphere and generous portions of family-style local Japanese food. And for Grandma Teshima herself; the soft-spoken but sprightly centenarian is there every night, making the rounds, refilling teacups and talking story.
She has a lot of them. Born in 1907 in Kona to Japanese immigrant parents, she’s fed soldiers from every war since World War I, when as a 12-year-old she served GIs saimin. She kept the business going through World War II, narrowly escaping the internment other Japanese-Americans suffered. She’s seen earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions. She’s raised a family that includes five children, twelve grandchildren, twenty-five great grandchildren and seven great-great grandchildren. She’s seen Kona grow from a string of rural settlements to the tourist Mecca it is today. And while other restaurants have come and gone, Teshima’s has not only survived, it’s prospered. Most nights the place is humming with a convivial if low-key buzz.
What’s the secret to such longevity? Staying small and paying attention to people. “I’m old fashioned,” Grandma Teshima says over the lively chatter of well-fed regulars. “I look for small things, and I care for them. You go to big places, you take care of yourself.”
Although she says she’s “getting old now,” Grandma Teshima intends to keep going. “I love my work,” she says. “It’s my medicine.” HH