Lei (Garland)

My initial experience with lei pua (flower lei) was a frightening one. As a child of five, visiting my Maui cousins for the first time, I was unacquainted with the custom of lei giving and became overwhelmed as cousin after cousin placed lei after lei over my head. Overcome by the fragrance and the weight of the flowers I simply sank to my knees. I would come to understand more about this custom over the years and now, I can’t imagine a world without lei. No matter what you are feeling or what’s going on in your life, being on the receiving end of a lei pua (flower lei) makes you feel like you are Queen of the World. This offering always comes from a place of aloha. This giving and receiving of lei is no less than a sacrament of love.

nana2It’s hard to hang on to your culture when you are far from home. In this case, Hawaii was our home. I never lived there, but Hawaii lived with us in the cultural work of my mother, and as it was embodied in the life of my grandmother who left Hawaii to come and live with us and help raise us. Hawaii came to us when relatives came through D.C. It came to us in the many and varied people who staffed the congressional offices representing the state of Hawaii. Their mele, hula and occasional softball games between Senator Inoyue’s office and the Hiram’s Hui Hawaii team of Senator Fong taught me a lot about the people of Hawaii. Whether they were Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Filipino or Hapa Haole they all honored the universal language of lei pua, as they do today.

Mom had a great collection of lei that she would wear when performing or attending functions with fellow islanders. Shell lei (lei pupu), seed lei (lei anoano), feather lei (lei hulu) are among the many kinds of lei she wore. While many of my friends inherited gold and silver rings and keepsakes from their mothers, my jewelry box is filled with lei. They all have a story. Her favorite lei was a multi-strand pikake lei displayed below.

Pikake shell lei
Mom is in the center flanked by Hawaii’s Cherry Blossom Princess (l) and Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii (r)  c 1965

birthday18When she was in Hawaii on business on my 18th birthday, Mom didn’t forget me. She returned to Virginia with three new muumuu from Liberty House, a kukui nut lei, and a birthday cake from the local bakery in her hometown of Wahiawa, Oahu, complete with hula dancer, which she carried on her lap all the way to Dulles Airport.

Lei giving always marked special occasions in our home. When you grow up in Great Falls, Virginia and have a middle name like Ku’upuaonaona, you get to have a little fun at the expense of your high school vice-principal who had the task of reading out all of the names during graduation. A few days before the ceremony, I was called to the office where the vice-principal had planned to talk me out of using my middle name on my diploma. Instead, he had his first lesson in the Hawaiian language. He practiced diligently and on the day of this milestone event he did not fail me. Everyone in my graduating class waited quietly to hear if he would be able to pull it off, and when he did, everyone applauded. I was very proud of him. As I left the stage, I saw my mother walking down the aisle with a double-orchid lei, flown in fresh from Hawaii. My mother had had her hands full working and taking care of my dad who was suffering from heart disease. I knew there wouldn’t be a graduation party. We were all too worried about Dad. But Mom remembered and ordered a lei for me and picked it up from the airport. My classmates applauded her efforts. They all knew that my dad was dying.

Katie McCue-Schwartz & Tommy with lei from our Halawai NY ohana

We continue the practice of giving lei to mark important events. My daughters’ graduations and weddings. Friends’ birthdays and anniversaries. Our most recent celebration – the birth of our first grandchild, Thomas Jonathan Schwartz.  It’s a small way to share the beauty of Hawaii and remember our Kupuna.

Lei Aloha, Lei Makamae

E ku’u lei (e ku’u lei)
Lei aloha na’u, lei makamae
Eia au, ke kali nei
Ho’i mai kāua, ho’i mai e pili 
Kou aloha ka’u 
E hi’ipoi nei 
Nā kau a kau (nā kau a kau)
Nou ho’okahi, nā li’a a loko
Āhea lā ‘oe, maliu mai
E ku’u lei  makamae
Ho’i mai kāua e pili

By Charles King, 1934

Trans: (from He Mele Aloha: A Hawaiian Songbook)

Beloved one, beloved of mine
To me you’re precious, a precious lei
Here I wait, my heart yearning
Oh come my love with me abide

Your love is the thing
That I cherish always
For all time, all time
For you alone does the heart yearn
When will you heed my pleas?
Oh beloved one, my precious
Let us be together again.


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