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Couple Who Spent Most Of Their Lives Together Die Within Days Of Each Other At 90


Elizabeth and Joseph Yamada were born just two days apart, and they died days apart too - Liz, one of the more than 259,000 who have died of COVID-19 in this country; Joe, after a long decline due to dementia.


Their love story began in the most unlikely of places. It was December of 1941, and the U.S. had just entered into war with Japan. Within days, thousands of Japanese Americans were forced to pack a single suitcase and were sent off to internment camps.


JOSEPH YAMADA: I met Elizabeth in camp - 11 years old. And she happened to be in the same camp that we were.

KELLY: That is the voice of Joe Yamada in a video made three years ago by the Cultural Landscape Foundation. Liz and Joe were 11 when their families were sent to a camp in Poston, Ariz.


YAMADA: And here is this godforsaken place, a huge desert area - mesquite trees and bushes and, as far as you could see, nothing.

KELLY: They stayed friends after their internment ended. They fell in love. And eventually, they got married and had three children.

CHANG: Here's their oldest son, Garrett Yamada.

GARRETT YAMADA: I kind of compare who they were by the foods. And, like, my dad was fish-and-chips kind of person. You know, he loved Spam. My mom was more fine dining, sushi.

CHANG: Liz taught at San Diego High School while Joe was running a landscape architecture firm. After teaching, Liz became a full-time mom and eventually became a partner in Joe's business. And if she carved out a little free time, you would find her sipping coffee with her nose in a book.

YAMADA: My mom - she would be the one to take us to museums, you know, get us into art classes. She provided the enrichment side of our lives.

KELLY: As for his father, Garrett says Joe was an entertainer at heart.

YAMADA: He was a fun-loving person, had a great laugh. He was great at telling stories.

KELLY: And great at making time for his kids, like taking the whole family out fishing.

YAMADA: And we'd do this, like, once a month. And then later on, I find out he hated fishing. He didn't like doing that, but he'd do it just because we'd like to do it.

PAT CAUGHEY: First time I met Joe Yamada was in a session where he came to our high school back in the early '70s. And he spoke about the profession, which I became eager to learn more about.

CHANG: That's Pat Caughey. Caughey had always loved plants too, but it was Joe who showed him that he could make a career working with plants. Years later, Caughey got in touch with Joe and started working for him and eventually became a partner in what was really a family business.

CAUGHEY: Joe and Liz - the humor was always there. We've had them at every function, at every dinner, every holiday celebration. When we would sit and talk - and just the evenings themselves were just filled with joy and happiness.

KELLY: Even in the difficult weeks after both Liz and Joe died, there was some joy and happiness to be found - their great-granddaughter was born on June 21.

YAMADA: Her name is Andy (ph), but her middle name is Elizabeth. So we remember my mom when we see our granddaughter.

CHANG: Liz and Joe Yamada were married for nearly 66 years. Joe died on May 11 of complications from dementia, and Liz died of COVID-19 nine days later.


KENNY ROGERS: (Singing) I can't remember when you weren't there.

KELLY: Taking us out there is one of Liz and Joe Yamada's favorites - "Through The Years" by Kenny Rogers.


ROGERS: (Singing) Anyone but you. I swear we've been through everything there is - can't imagine anything we've missed, can't imagine anything the two of us can't do. Through the years... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.