Kamalani Hurley floral

Kamalani Hurley

ʻōiwi author and educator 

Kamalani Hurley florals

Fishing for Grandma by David Manu Bird

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Some of my favorite pop­u­lar posts when I pub­lished Pūpū A ‘O ‘Ewa Native Hawai­ian Writ­ing and Arts at Lee­ward Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege were per­son­al essays by stu­dents and faculty.

Fish­ing for Grand­ma, by my col­league and long­time friend, Dave Ka’a­puwai “Manu” Bird, was first pub­lished in 2014.  About this essay, one of our read­ers wrote, “I espe­cial­ly loved read­ing Manu’s narrative…brought back some mem­o­ries with my own ʻohana!” I know that in shar­ing his sto­ry, Manu was glad that some­one else con­nect­ed to their own kupuna. 

Manu joined his ances­tors ear­li­er this year after a brief ill­ness. He leaves behind his lov­ing fam­i­ly — wife Mary, son Keoni, daugh­ters Mālia and Tinan, and moʻop­una — as well as his many stu­dents, col­leagues, and friends. E Manu-Tok, nui ke alo­ha ia ʻoe.

Watch our video inter­view with Manu Bird.

Fish­ing for Grand­ma by Dave Manu Bird

“God­dam dis bug­gah!” I exclaimed as the kūkū of the pua hilahi­la dug into my hand. Like the entire old ceme­tery beside the Waikāne Con­gre­ga­tion­al Church, the grave I was clean­ing was infest­ed with the thorny plants.

“Please remem­ber where you are,” Mary scold­ed, tak­ing umbrage with my pro­fane language.

“How can for­get?” I shot back.

“Well, if you can­not respect God, you could at least respect the dead.”

“So?” I mut­tered to myself. “Stay make da kine make guys any­way.” With that, I knew that I was get­ting stink eye from my wife.

My sar­casm was the result of stress, not how I felt. As I sur­veyed the graves around me, I still couldn’t believe that Grand­ma was gone. Her death still didn’t seem real. What was real, how­ev­er, was the pain of the kūkū pok­ing my knees through my jeans. Once again I bent over, care­ful­ly pushed my fin­gers under the branch­es of anoth­er pua hilahi­la plant, pinched its stem tight­ly, and yanked the whole thing out of the ground by its long tap root. I threw the plant on a near­by ‘ōpala pile and reached for another.

It was hot, and I was sweat­ing, but as I worked I could not help but remem­ber Grandma’s voice even though it had been phys­i­cal­ly stilled for­ev­er. I couldn’t help but think how much Mary and Grand­ma often sound­ed alike. They both usu­al­ly spoke that crisp Eng­lish locals always speak when they don’t want to sound local. They e‑nun-ci-ate care-ful-ly.

“When are we going?” 13 year-old Keoni whined, pulling me out of my rem­i­nisc­ing. He was bored and want­ed to get on with our pic­nic and fish­ing expe­di­tion to Kahana Bay, our des­ti­na­tion after the graveyard.

“‘E Keoni, kulikuli, ‘eh,” I responded.

I didn’t need a punk kid’s has­sles adding to my mis­ery. I was wilt­ing because of the heat, the kūkū, and the com­plaints. I was also get­ting tired of the gen­er­al uneasi­ness I felt because only Mary, Keoni, Mālia, Tinan, and I were there at the grave­yard. It did not seem right to me that only our nuclear fam­i­ly was tak­ing part in Grandma’s post-funer­al funer­al with­out rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the extend­ed fam­i­ly, even though no-one else was able to join us.

Grandma’s for­mal funer­al had been held the month before. Fam­i­ly mem­bers hadFishing for Grandma gath­ered togeth­er from Kaʻimukī, Kailua, Kāne’ohe, Nānākuli, and the Main­land. That day, we scat­tered most of Grandma’s ash­es along with thou­sands of flow­ers and prayers off of Kaha­la Beach Park. We gave Grand­ma back to her beloved moana and ‘āina at that place because it had been one of her favorite fish­ing spots, at least in the days when Kaha­la con­sist­ed of groves of kiawe trees, a dairy farm, and a hodge­podge of week-end beach cot­tages. Before the main funer­al start­ed, Mary and I put a kapu on a lit­tle bit of Grand­ma. We want­ed to bring a part of her to the wind­ward side, anoth­er of her favorite fish­ing areas. That day in Waikāne, we had two film can­is­ters filled with Grandma’s ash­es, all that was left of her in this world.

Final­ly we could read the inscrip­tion on the grave head­stone that I was cleaning:

Martha Koolau
Died Dec 10, 1931
Age 50 Years

Martha Ko’olau was Grandma’s moth­er; Grand­ma had lived to be 92.

My clean­ing work fin­ished, I stood and stretched. One of the kids retrieved a dis­card­ed pua hilahi­la and used it to brush the dirt off of the gravestone.

I sud­den­ly felt strange­ly light-head­ed and absent mind­ed. “Pau dis,” I said. “Mu fek ea nunuw nga. . . I mean time for da lei and stuffs.”

With­out think­ing, I had momen­tar­i­ly switched into our hānai daughter’s native lan­guage. Then as I looked down at the grave, it struck me how kapakahi we all were – and are. We are like cul­tur­al schiz­o­phren­ics who switch per­son­ae seem­ing­ly with­out rea­son. We were exact­ly like what Grand­ma had been. For years I tried to under­stand Grand­ma, the last fam­i­ly mem­ber born in the 19th Cen­tu­ry and the only one we knew who had seen, talked to, and had even sung for Queen Lili’uokalani. But Grand­ma had been like a mo’o that changes its col­ors. She was hard to see because she blend­ed in with her imme­di­ate sur­round­ings. She nev­er told us very much about her­self. She was exces­sive­ly ret­i­cent about her child­hood and ear­ly adult life. She nev­er talked about her moth­er. So what about us?

My sud­den ques­tion was a rev­e­la­tion. If Grand­ma was an enig­ma, then so are we. Who was Grand­ma? By exten­sion, who are we?

Mary and the girls began lay­ing lei, flow­ers, and lā’ī around the head­stone. As they did, I looked out at the vehi­cles roar­ing past on Kame­hame­ha High­way a few yards from us. The sight of the cars pulled my thoughts back to long ago when we were trav­el­ing down the same road …

… Has it real­ly been 20 years since we passed here in Mom Z’s old Chevy II sta­tion wag­on? We were head­ed for Uncle AP and Aun­tie Sam’s beach house in Ka’a’awa for a week’s worth of fish­ing and swim­ming, a mid-sum­mer break and the ‘oama sea­son we always looked for­ward to. Grandma’s voice and Grandma’s words that day are still as clear to me now as a Kāne’ohe Bay reef when there’s no run-off pol­lu­tion to silt the water. She was scold­ing me.

Aun­tie is stu­pid. You are stu­pid for let­ting her make you take these bananas. I would nev­er have got­ten in the car if I had seen them. You nev­er take bananas and manure to the beach. When you “ go to the moun­tains,” you must do things properly.

I no like take kūkae no place, espe­cial­ly holoholo.

Boy, no tok lai’ dat! Speak pro-per Eng-lish .…

That was vin­tage Grand­ma. Rarely, though, did she raise her voice like this to me or her oth­er mo’opuna. She didn’t have to. She nev­er touched us, but she could whack us aside the head with a with­er­ing look if we did some­thing that dis­pleased her or vio­lat­ed her sense of pro­pri­ety. To this day, she is alive. I know so. I can no longer give her a hug or kiss her on her vel­vety cheek, but there is lit­tle I do unless before­hand I ask myself If I do this, would Grandma’s maka smile at me or give me stink eye?

But who was this woman? And by exten­sion, who are we?

Occa­sion­al­ly Grand­ma would pass on to us snip­pets of Hawai­ian lore and pro­to­col, espe­cial­ly about fish­ing – her life-long pas­sion. But what about the rest of the mana’o she had gath­ered dur­ing the course of her long life? What about grow­ing up in rur­al Puna, attend­ing Saint Andrew’s Pri­o­ry as a board­ing stu­dent, and singing on the Hawaii Calls radio pro­gram in the 1930s and 1940s? What adven­tures did she have? Whom did she know? Why could she under­stand spo­ken Hawai­ian but not put two words of the lan­guage togeth­er to speak it?

As I stood by the grave watch­ing Mary and the kids arrange the lei, I could only spec­u­late. She was not atyp­i­cal for her gen­er­a­tion or the next in her ret­i­cence. Could the effects of 1893 have silenced them all? Hawai’i was once one of the most lit­er­ate nations on earth with an active Hawai­ian lan­guage pub­lish­ing indus­try and cit­i­zens who were avid read­ers and writ­ers. In 1896, the haole lead­ers of the Repub­lic of Hawai’i passed a law ban­ning Hawai­ian as a lan­guage of instruc­tion in schools, a law that was not repealed until 1983. Teach­ers phys­i­cal­ly beat chil­dren if they spoke Hawai­ian, and teach­ers vis­it­ed their stu­dents’ homes and scold­ed their par­ents for speak­ing Hawai­ian in front of their chil­dren. The Hawai­ian lan­guage almost went the way of Latin. Were these the rea­sons for gen­er­a­tions of kūpuna silence?

Who was Grand­ma, a per­son who was born in Old Hawai’i but who died in Mod­ern Amer­i­ca? Who was this per­son who worked as a faith­ful cashier at the orig­i­nal Wil­lows restau­rant in Mo’ili’ili for decades until she was in her 70s? She had a strong Amer­i­can work eth­ic, but still she would occa­sion­al­ly drink Scotch before work or call in sick to go fish­ing. What caused her to be kolohe?

And who are we? As we stood by the gravesite, I could not help but won­der what per­spec­tives we no longer under­stood and prob­a­bly nev­er would because of Grandma’s silence. I felt like we were already at Kahana Bay, try­ing to catch fish in deplet­ed and degrad­ed waters.

Mary brought me back into real­i­ty, for the ho’okupu was in place. We stood around the grave hold­ing hands over a prayer, and then we took turns sprin­kling Grandma’s remain­ing ash­es over her mother’s grave. We knew that even­tu­al­ly the life-giv­ing ua would soak her remains into the sacred ‘āina, min­gling her with her mother’s iwi and bind­ing us once again to the long line of kūpuna and ‘aumakua that stretch­es back into antiquity.

After we fin­ished scat­ter­ing Grandma’s ash­es, we once again joined hands for pule. “E ko māk­ou makua i loko o ka lani,” Mary began to intone. But just then a long line of tourist bus­es head­ing for the Poly­ne­sian Cul­tur­al Cen­ter roared past 15 feet from us, drown­ing out Mary’s words. The bus­es’ diesel engines blast­ed us with storms of blue-black exhaust and silenced our prayer to Grand­ma and to God.

Pho­to cred­it: Mary Bird. Inter­view video: Rok­ki Midro.

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