As a child studying hula with my mother as teacher, one of the first things I learned to do was make a flower (pua) with my hands. I learned to pick a flower by pointing my hand downward and bringing my fingers together. And by turning this hand up counter-clockwise with my fingers still closed, I could show the beautiful flower (pua nani). Inevitably, the pretty flowers became a lei. I could hold out my arms to offer this garland of flowers, or bring both hands up, over my head and shoulders to place the lei around my neck. With both hands, I could lift the bottom of the lei to my nose, inhale, and share the fragrance of these flowers. By drawing my hands up into the air and gently lowering them with wiggling fingers, I could bring rain upon the flowers. And by whirling my arms and hands above my head I could conjure up the trade winds that would carry their intoxicating fragrance across Hawaii Nei.
But I did not live in Hawaii. I lived in Bethesda, MD, where I first learned to dance hula in the living room of our brick house. My mother would sing of a foreign place, where there was once a Queen, and mountains, and oceans, and rainbows, and flowers. Occasionally a shipment of orchids would arrive to be strung together for a festive event. This was before UPS or FedEx. This was when you had to climb into the car and fetch them from the airport. Our house would become a botanical garden for a short period of time and I would believe my mother that this Hawaii was a real place I could visit one day.
That day came when I was six years old and I flew for the first time, with my mother, who led a group of blue haired ladies on a Northwest Orient Airlines tour of Hawaii. This was in the day when the flight took two days with an overnight stay in Seattle. When we finally landed in Honolulu and walked down the steps to the tarmac, I was overwhelmed with the “perfume of a million flowers”, as in The Song of Old Hawaii. This fragrance told me I was in an alien land. I was in the land of my mother’s ancestors.
The tour my mother led visited the Big Island, Maui, Kauai, and Oahu. The scent of flowers followed me everywhere, but in Maui, they almost killed me. It was here, at the airport, that I met my Lahaina cousins for the first time. Auntie Lena had a large family and it seemed as if each family member presented me with lei. My first reaction was fear because I didn’t really understand who all these brown people were. Slowly, I started to faint under the weight of the lei and the knowledge that I somehow belonged to these people. I was drowning in the fragrance of na pua and tears.
When my newly discovered cousins couldn’t drown me with flowers, they sought out the ocean. I had never been to the ocean before. Food, tatami mats, towels and children were gathered for the trek to the sea. I recall a lifeguard was on duty. I was warned of riptides, but didn’t know what that meant. The cousins charged into the water. They were natural swimmers. I was scared, and trapped at the part of the shore where the broken shells and coral create a tortured path to the smooth sands. My mother told me later that she asked the lifeguard to keep an eye on me, and he told her, “No worry – she’s the only red one out there.” My Irish skin was my salvation when a wave hit me and took me under. The waterman was true to his occupation when he lifted me out of the surf and carried me to a bed of towels where I stayed curled up out of the burning sun until it was time to go home.
Surviving my ordeal with the ohana, we left Maui for Oahu, my mother’s birthplace. It is here that I was taken to visit my great-grandmother Alice Kanoekaapunionalani Palea Kunane who lived at a home for aged Hawaiians. This ancient daughter of Kohala was the family matriarch. I remember she cried when she saw me and called out to me the name she had given me at birth – Ku’upuaonaona – my fragrant flower. Even at my birth, though we were separated by thousands of miles, Mother Kunane’s gift of a name made sure that I would always remember Hawaii was my ancestral home.
Looking back on that adventure, I understand now that my mother took me on this journey to discover Na Pua a o Hawaii : the people of Hawaii. Mama wanted me to know that these cousins and this great-grandmother were the true flowers and though far away from them, I could recall them in the hula when our hands would pick the flowers and show the flowers as our feet moved to the steady beat of the ipu.