Thursday, June 26, 2014

On Leis and Memories (UPDATED)

My wife Czerina made a lei this week as a birthday present for my nephew Kietsai, who is turning one-years-old on June 30 (which also happens to be my birthday). Of all the presents she could have come up with, I really think this one is the best. And I'm quite happy that she was able to get it done in time.

I could be wrong, but I feel like the lei is largely misunderstood by most people here on "The Mainland." Everyone thinks they are pretty, but I also get the impression they are regarded as quaint or even kitschy, along with flower print shirts and summer cocktails with paper umbrellas (which are modeled on Japanese or Chinese-style parasols, I might add). Among the people of the Pacific, leis are serious business. Historically they have been used to conclude peace agreements, commemorate significant life events (births, weddings, birthdays, etc.) and are strongly connected to the gods watching over the islands and waters.

Leis have their own special place in my family. My father's side is Japanese, but they've been in Hawaii since my great-grandfather's time. My grandmother made leis all the time, some of which she sold, while others were given away gifts on special occasions. Whenever my family visited the island of Kauai, where my grandparents lived, my grandfather and grandmother would be there at the airport to pick us up with a fresh hand-made lei for each of us. Often they were ones made from llima: tiny orange flowers strung tightly together face-to-face so they seemed to form a brightly-colored tube with a striking fragrances (And, I would like to add, traditionally reserved for Hawaiian royalty).
It's too bad that leis are made from something as delicate and short-lived as flowers. You can't keep them bright and alive forever. Sometimes they are dried out and preserved as mementos, but I don't really care for that.  It's just not the same, and I'd prefer to keep my memories of what they looked and felt like when new than hold onto a wilted remnant of their former self.

My grandfather maintained a pretty big garden to supply all of the flowers for my grandmother's lei-making activities. When I was very little, they still lived in plantation housing that was part of the McBryde Sugar Company, which employed my grandfather during his working years. The house was modest, but from my tiny perspective the flower garden was enormous. So many brightly colored tropical flowers perfuming the air around the house with their various scents. Even when they moved into their own house, built not that far away and still in the town of Eleele, the flower garden seemed to have traveled with them.

Sadly, the making of leis in my family eventually faded away just like the flowers themselves.  My grandmother never passed on the art to either her daughter, my mother or anyone else in the family. And after my grandfather succumbed to cancer in the late 1990s, there was no one to tend the garden.  Gradually, the great bunches of carnations and birds of paradise died off or dropped in number. After my grandmother also passed away, visits to Kauai, now as an adult, involved being either picked up by my father (who often flew out in advance) or renting a car for myself. The only leis bestowed on me being the same ones I'd get if I stepped into a touristy gift shop or the grounds of a local hotel.

So, it's really quite an amazing coincidence that the woman I met and eventually married should be a devotee of the indigenous Hawaiian arts.  Especially amazing given that her own family has no roots on the islands (her family is straight from the Philippines). Currently as a student of the Halau i Ka Pono hula school in Oak Park, she studies Hawaiian dance and music, which includes the preparation of the required traditional dress and the making of leis.

It was her idea to make a lei for my nephew, and I couldn't be happier. We are expecting our own first child soon, and one of the thoughts on my mind has been all the people and things he (and his first cousin) will never know first-hand about his family.  My mother's mother, my halmoni in South Korea is alive and well, God bless her; in her 90s, churchgoing and seemingly unstoppable. But my son will never meet his paternal great-grandfather Yoshitomo "Jack" Sora (whose American name he will inherit) or his great-grandmother Tsuyoko Sora (nee Kono), hear their pidgin-accented English or their odd mixture of Meiji Era Japanese and local Hawaiian slang. He'll never ride in the back of his great-grandfather's yellow pickup truck with the homemade seat in the back as he takes in the sunshine and salt air, bumping along roads streaked with Kauai's distinctive red volcanic dirt. He'll never get to giggle at his great-grandmother's tendency to talk to herself (something my father and I share), or her goofy stories about old grudges against neighbors and in-laws.

But maybe, just maybe, thanks to his mother, my wife, he'll get to marvel at what wonderful and beautiful things leis can be. And though they might not be my grandmother's, I'm sure they'll smell no less sweet.

UPDATE - As of June 28, 2014, I've had word that the birthday boy has received the lei, and per the photographs, looks just as cute as could be.

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