When my maternal grandparents left Wahiawa, Oahu in 1959 to come and live with their eldest daughter’s family in Maryland, our house became a multi-generational home. As I think back on the first home we shared, I can’t for the life of me figure out how we all fit into that little split-level: Mom, Dad, me and two brothers plus Gramps, Nana, and my mom’s youngest sister. I think people needed less space back in the 60’s. Somehow we made it work. My grandfather passed away a few years later and my grandmother stayed with us through another four re-locations. During this time, the three packs of cigarettes a day my dad smoked during his Navy career caught up with him and chronic lung and heart disease sidelined him from attending social events, so it became my job to step in as my mom’s escort. And thus, it became the three of us – Mom, known as Lani; Nana – who was called Auntie Abbie by the Hawaiian community; and me.
My mother was a tireless promoter of Hawaiian culture up to and after statehood. Her talents were in constant demand by venues that ranged in size from church halls, department store fashion shows, and congressional receptions, to large events sponsored by the Hawaii State Society to which she belonged and at times served on the board of governors. Auntie Abbie would often be called upon to offer the benediction in the Hawaiian language. I was in awe of the power these syllables had as they floated across the room into the ears of non-Hawaiian speakers who didn’t know what she was saying, but who trusted it was good. At other times she would accompany my mother’s hula with her soft voice, strumming a tenor ukulele or guitar. The hours that the three of us spent in the car going to and from these gatherings cemented our bond. This was my classroom. This is where I caught a glimpse of my mom’s life as a hapa haole teenager, growing up in territorial Hawaii, living through the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent imposition of martial law in a town where a commanding officer could move a school rather than a brothel when the parents complained that their children were being corrupted by the sight of servicemen standing in queues outside the school windows, waiting their turn to go inside.
I remember a time when my mother’s boss, Senator Hiram Fong, invited the staff to his home for a party. Most of the staff were island born so there was always mele and hula and a cosmopolitan pupu spread that reflected all their varied backgrounds. On this occasion the three of us were introduced to the wife of an African ambassador. She looked us over, her eyes studying each face, and said “You are all of one house?” We tried to convince her that while our complexions were different, we were indeed from the same house. Three women. One house.
Lani and Auntie Abbie are gone now. But I still occupy that one house with these two women. And reaching back, I see that we are just the recent occupants of this house. My mother’s first cousin Lena is there with her broad smile in her holomuu adorned with pikake lei. Abbie’s sister, Auntie Dear, long-time matron of Lahainaluna School, sits over her lauhala weaving. And my great-grandmother, Kanoekaapunionalani watches over all of us in this house of women. These are my Kupuna. My Hawaiian communion of saints. They guide and protect me. They whisper to me in night to calm my fears and show me the beauty in this world.