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A funeral home employee opened the door to a family secret

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Time now for "My Unsung Hero," our series from the team at Hidden Brain. "My Unsung Hero" tells the stories of people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.

Today's story comes from Mas Masumoto. Growing up, Masumoto was vaguely aware that he had an aunt who had been separated from the family in the 1940s. Her name was Shizuko Sugimoto. Shizuko had an intellectual disability, and as was often done in those days, she became a ward of the state. The family never talked about her, assumed she had died. But one day in 2012, Masumoto got a surprising message from a funeral home worker named Renee Johnson. Johnson was beginning the process of making funeral arrangements for a woman in hospice, a woman in her '90s named Shizuko Sugimoto.

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MAS MASUMOTO: So she looked up in the 1930 census, found Shizuko's name with my mom's name, and proceeded to phone me so Shizuku would not die alone. It was amazing for Renee to go through all that work when she didn't have to 'cause she got the contract for this Shizuko Sugimoto, who had no family apparently on the records, and they were just going to take care of the body, and she would pass away in a - you know, in a very simple way. But it was Renee who said no. She wanted to see if family could be reunited with this person.

When I told my mom and my aunt and uncle, I said, OK, I want you to sit down because I have this news. And I said, you remember Aunt Shizuko? And they all said, oh, yeah, yeah. She passed away a long time ago. And I took a deep breath, and I said, no, Shizuko's alive. And then everyone said, no, that can't be. That can't be right. And then I told them the story of what happened, and they all paused and said, we need to see her. We need to go see her.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MASUMOTO: Renee opened the door to a family secret. And especially dealing with someone with a disability, and in this case, intellectual disability - for my parents' generation and grandparents', this was a secret that people had. And it brought shame to a lot of people, and people were treated wrongly by becoming invisible and hiding these kind of facts. So Renee, I want to thank you for opening the door for our family to explore this traumatic history that's full of choices and circumstances beyond control. You know, we were forced to reexamine and probe our own family secrets. And I want to thank you for that because you have changed our family history and also opened my own eyes to understand this is part of the legacy that I carry, all thanks to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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KELLY: Mas Masumoto of Del Rey, Calif. The family did get to meet Shizuko, who lived another two years after they reunited. He explores more about his aunt in his new memoir called "Secret Harvests: A Hidden Story Of Separation And The Resilience Of A Family Farm." And you can find more stories like this one on the "My Unsung Hero" podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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