“Everybody has a story. You listen to their story, Honeygirl, and your story will come find you.”
I was twelve the summer my grandmother gave me those words. She touched my flushed cheek with her small, soft hands and kissed the end of my freckled nose. We were sitting on her porch swing, listening to the lush Louisiana twilight being beckoned to our corner of the world by the crickets’ persistent chitter-buzz.
I think I remember that moment so clearly not because of Grand Lady’s words but because of her touch. For years she had given me words. Every year on my birthday she had sent me a book. Each Christmas she had sent me a handwritten poem along with a pair of pink slippers. But on this rare occasion, I sat beside Grand Lady, and she gave me her soft touch along with her words. That’s why I felt blessed by some sort of beauty that was larger than life.
Last spring, my daughter turned twelve, and I had only one wish. I wanted Hannah to go to Louisiana, as I had when I was her age. I wanted my ninety-two-year-old Grand Lady to touch Hannah’s face and to give her the soft words that would go inside and bless her. I wanted Hannah to know the same mysterious beauty that had filled a solitary place in my spirit with hope.
No one, not even my husband, knew about my secret wish. If I had told Tom, he would have tried to scrape together the money, and I knew we didn’t have it. We own a small business on a small island. The island of Maui. Yes, we are blessed to live there. We realize that. Visitors from around the world come to our shop to rent snorkel gear and tell us if they lived here they would never want to leave. I didn’t want to leave for good. Only for a week or so.
Then an unexpected twist caused my wish to come true.
The day school ended for the summer, Hannah and I took off on our adventure. We drove hundreds of miles with Arizona sunsets in the rearview mirror and Texas thunderstorms out the windshield. We arrived in Louisiana on a sultry summer’s eve, and I felt as if we had stepped into a dream. Everything was familiar: the Big House, the cemetery, the Piggly Wiggly Market, even the pew where we sat beside Grand Lady on Sunday morning and I slipped my grown hand into hers.
Hannah shucked corn at Mr. Joe’s fruit stand and ventured into the attic where she discovered Aunt Peg’s sixty-year-old, mothballed gowns. My sweet girl gathered gardenias by the basketful and wore them in her hair the night she lit up the evening sky with sparklers. We drank southern sweet tea like hummingbirds and ate enough Louisiana black-eyed peas to last us for a good long while.
Then one afternoon, when I wasn’t looking, Grand Lady touched my Hannah’s face and gave her words that crushed her.
That was the day my story came and found me.
May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii.
On the island of Oahu, the outstretched arms on the giant statue of King Kamehameha the Great are looped with hundreds of trailing leis made from delicate, golden ělima flowers. These tiny blossoms resemble the feathers of the now-extinct óo bird that once were collected and woven into elegant, long capes for the royalty of these islands.
Kamehameha the Great is remembered as a strong warrior who united the Hawaiian Islands. He and his descendants are still honored by the people of Hawaii. Whenever I see his statue draped with those fragrant flowers on May Day, I think of the great lady who stretched out her arms to me long ago, wearing a fragrant gardenia in her white hair. Her name is Charlotte Isabella Burroughs, and she is my grandmother. My Grand Lady.
I was thinking of Grand Lady on May Day this year as I arrived at the elementary school in Lahaina, where we live on the island of Maui. As a long-standing tradition, the students participate in a lei-making contest each May 1. In the eighteen years that I’ve volunteered as one of the judges, I’ve never seen a lei made from gardenias. I thought about how, if I were granted my wish for my daughter, Hannah, to go to Louisiana to meet Grand Lady, I would make a lei from the gardenias that exploded like popcorn on the huge bush by the Big House. I would drape my Grand Lady in fragrant flowers and let her know while she was still living that she was honored by her most enamored descendant.
Entering the cafeteria, I detected the faint scent of fried Spam and steamed white rice lingering in the air. Must be Thursday. Spam and rice every Thursday. With teriyaki sauce.
Two teachers’ aides looked up and smiled when I entered. They were busy placing numbers in front of the leis on the long tables; so I hung back and waited next to the open windows while they completed their task. I was glad for a breath of fresh air. After nearly twenty years on this island, I still had not taken to Spam the way my son and daughter did after their weekly school lunches of the local favorite. I was thinking of corn on the cob dripping with butter and my Uncle Burt’s hickory-smoked ribs smothered in barbecue sauce.
The gentle trade winds tumbled in from the ocean, treating the flattened window slats like welcome mats, wiping their wet feet quickly and asking the startled strands of my long brown hair if they wanted to dance. My hair, as usual, said, “Yes!”
I didn’t try to stop the familiar tousled jazz routine but rather gazed out at the sparkling blue Pacific, and I felt a rising sense of wild-eyed restlessness. West Maui has to be one of the most beautiful places God ever made. I loved it here. Yet sometimes I think I know every inch of this island. I wonder what it would be like to drive and drive and not know where I am. I dream of snow-capped mountains. If I start thinking about how small our island is or how we’re surrounded by all that salt water–miles and miles of nothing but ocean–I can work myself into a respectable panic. I must confess this because, when I made my wish for Hannah to go to Louisiana, I think my rising bout of island fever factored into the wish.
Marilyn, the school principal, entered the cafeteria with several plumeria leis strung over her arm. She offered one to me with a friendly “aloha” and a brush of a kiss across my cheek. I received her greeting and flowers with a warm, “mahalo,” reminding myself why I loved to live here. The people, the sweet fragrance, the gentle aloha…yet what was it that was drawing me away from Maui to that place of my childhood memories?
Directing me to the first table by the door, Marilyn said, “The scoring sheets are on the clipboards. Remember, no concurring with the other judges until after you’ve completed your tally.”
I had to smile at the way everyone took this lei contest so seriously. All expressions of art are taken seriously in Lahaina. Young artists have an assortment of talented mentors available to them as well as a variety of contests throughout the year designed to promote their talent. My own Hannah has won three years in a row at the annual Art Night in Lahaina for the best watercolor painting in her age group.
Every year for the Lei Day contest Hannah would go over to her friend Pua’s house where the two of them created their leis. That way I never saw Hannah’s work ahead of time and couldn’t be influenced when I did the judging. She takes her art contests seriously, especially when she’s allowed to give her creativity free rein.
I scanned the scoring sheet and remembered the first time I had volunteered to do this. I stood in this same cafeteria and looked out at the ocean through these same slatted windows. That was the first time I saw a humpback whale breech. The beast shot out of the water, made a slight half-turn and belly-flopped with a great, white splash. I gave a cry and pointed out the window. No one else had noticed the spectacle that day. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen, but I stood alone in the wonder and felt sure I would never grow tired of this amazing place.
Since then I’ve seen dozens of whales. Maybe hundreds. Tom and I often go sailing in the middle of January and watch the frolicking whales from only a hundred yards away. I have gone swimming with dolphins and sea turtles. I’ve seen more rainbows than I can count. I’ve slept in a hammock under the stars and sauntered through a bamboo forest. I dine regularly on fresh-picked pineapple and sweet papayas that drop from my neighbor’s tree into my front yard. I’ve hiked through a volcano and kissed my husband behind a waterfall. I experience wonders in my daily routine that other women wait a lifetime to experience once.
In the wake of such daily abundance, was I crazy to long for the treasures of the mainland? Why did I crave the sight of fireflies, magnolia blossoms, or a forest thick with pine trees? Why did the thought of Cajun sausage sound so delicious at this moment?
The tall, lanky palm trees outside the cafeteria window rustled their shaggy manes, as if to scold me and to say, “The trees are always greener on the other side of the ocean, you know.”
Yes, I know.
Focusing on the task before me, I examined the first three leis. They were all made from candy, a popular choice with the lower grades. Two were crafted from shells, and one was made from bones.
Chicken neck bones, I think.
The budding artists seemed to get more creative each year.
About ten years ago, I was in agreement with the organizers when they decided that the students could use something other than flowers to make their leis. That year one student entered an octopus lei. The dead thing smelled so bad that even after we disposed of it, we had to move all the other entries outside to continue the contest.
No sea creatures this year, I noticed, moving on to the next table. I gave a score of “3” to a vegetable lei featuring radish roses spaced with black olives. The Ninja Turtle figurine lei fastened with rubber bands received a “2,” and I debated over a “2” or a “3” for a lei made with colorful buttons.
My favorite was a lei made from lipstick tubes, bright pink crayons, and magenta-colored bougainvillea. I don’t know why I liked it so much. Perhaps it was the great balance of the bright colors or the added touch of the flowers. I gave that lei the highest score so far.
The final lei came with a clever tag: “U.S. of Lei.” The designer, most likely a fifth-grader looking for extra credit in history, had drilled holes in puzzle pieces of the fifty states and had strung them together. All those states connected as one big whole.
Being dependent on boats and planes here on the islands to go anywhere, I stood there, thinking of how people can travel from one state right into another state without even stepping out of their car.
Cautiously touching the dark orange puzzle piece shaped like Louisiana, I thought of Grand Lady and whispered my secret wish once again. This time, my words sounded more like a prayer than a wish.
Running my finger up the jagged coastline of the California puzzle piece, I thought of my mother and wondered what it would feel like to be connected once again. Not with my mother. That would take a miracle. But what would it feel like to be connected with the rest of America? My America. I wanted to pick up that “U.S. of Lei,” drape it triumphantly around my neck, and see what it felt like to have all fifty states circling me.
My cell phone rang. My brother, Jon, who lived in Seattle, was calling.
“Hey, Abby. Glad I caught you. Listen, I have something to talk to you about. We’re going to Europe again this summer. I have a meeting in Brussels, but then Patty and the girls and I are going to Paris and Rome. We’re flying back to Atlanta and driving our new SUV up the East Coast and then home.”
“Wow. Europe and half of the U.S. in one summer.” I checked the tone of my voice.
“Yeah, well, you know. You gotta’ do it while you can.”
I wanted to bite him the way I did when he was eight and had pulled off my favorite doll’s head.
Handing over my clipboard to Marilyn with a nod that I’d completed my judging, I stepped outside and tried to sound gracious. “I hope you have a great time, Jon.”
“I’m glad you feel that way, Abby, because our potential for having a great time might depend on you.”
My brother missed his true calling. He may have made a small fortune working for a high-tech computer corporation for the past twenty years, but he should have been a vacuum cleaner salesman. He was good at shaking out all the dirt and making you stand there and watch him suck it back up.
“How would you and Tom and the kids like to drive our SUV from Seattle to Atlanta while we’re in Europe?” Jon asked. “I’ll pay for everything: airfare, gas, hotels, food. That’s the only way we could think of to get our vehicle to Atlanta. What do you think?”
What do I think of a free trip across the U.S.? I couldn’t respond.
“You don’t have to answer right now,” Jon said. “Talk it over with Tom and call us back tonight.”
I managed to say, “okay” and then returned to our beach gear rental store so stunned that, instead of enthusiastically telling my husband the good news, I accused him of contacting Jon and trying to set this up as a surprise.
“Abby, I’m telling you, I didn’t talk to your brother.” Tom lowered his voice so that the customer who was trying on sunglasses near the front door wouldn’t hear us.
“Then how did Jon know?”
“Know what?” Tom asked.
“How did Jon know I wanted to go to Louisiana to see Grand Lady?”
Tom’s jaw relaxed. “You do? When did you decide that?”
“On Hannah’s birthday.”
The customer left, and Tom and I were alone in the store so I told him about my secret wish and how Jon’s phone call was just a little too perfect.
Tom nodded slowly, taking it all in.
“So, what do you think?” I asked. “Should we take Jon up on the offer? It would be our first vacation in a long time.”
“Abby, who’s going to run things if all of us leave for two weeks?”
“We can find someone.”
“I don’t know. What if we only went for a week? Ten days at the most. We could drive to Atlanta in a diagonal line. Through Colorado. You always wanted to go to Colorado, Tom. We could take turns driving. Doesn’t the trip appeal to you?”
The squint lines around his eyes softened. My tall, going-gray husband looked much younger than I felt at that moment.
“You need to get off island, don’t you?” He sounded like a doctor making a diagnosis.
I nodded slowly and confessed to him all my island fever symptoms, concluding with the emotionally patriotic moment I had with the “U.S. of Lei.” “I wanted to put all those beautiful fifty states around my neck and see what it felt like to be connected with the mainland again.”
One of the best things about Tom is that he doesn’t laugh at me unless he knows for certain I’m trying to be funny.
True enough, he didn’t laugh. Instead he said, “Well, then, why don’t you go? You and the kids. I don’t need to go with you.”
“But Jon offered the trip to all of us. Don’t you want to go?”
“Not particularly. Your wish was for Hannah to meet her great grandmother; so there it is. Go and take Hannah. It sounds like an offer you can’t refuse.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
For a moment, my husband and I stood in silence, gazing at each other.
“Do me a favor though, Abby. The next time you make a wish, try to include the words, “Tom” and “sailboat,” will you? Preferably a Hobie cat.” He winked.
I love it when Tom winks.
“Who’s getting a Hobie cat?” our eighteen-year-old son, Justin, asked, entering the store wearing three leis around his neck. Two were open-ended garlands made from flat maile leaves. The other was a short strand of dark, round kukui nuts. The leis were the type traditionally given to men who had a place of honor. My son obviously had several admirers at school this Lei Day.
“What are you doing out of school so early?” Tom asked.
“I decided to ditch.”
Tom straightened his back and gave Justin a stern look. “What do you mean you decided to ditch? You have only a few more weeks of school before you graduate, and I’d advise you not to pull any stunts that could jeopardize your scholarship to Rancho Corona.”
“Hey, I’m just messing with ya’. Man! I thought you could take a joke. If I was ditching, do you think I’d come here?” Justin straightened a row of Boogie boards that was leaning on the surfboards--the only two rental items in our store that our son treated with extra care.
Tom glanced at me. I was the one who always was telling him to give Justin the benefit of the doubt. We had a good son. I don’t think Tom fully believed that yet.
“Did they dismiss the high school early for the Lei Day events?” I asked.
“Yeah, something like that. It was short schedule today, that’s all I know. So what were you guys talking about when I came in? Are we getting a Hobie cat? To rent or for us?”
“No, we were talking about going to the mainland,” I said with a smile. “You wanna’ come?”
I gave Justin the details of my brother’s call and watched my son’s expression to see what he thought. Justin didn’t rush into the chance to share the driving with me through miles and miles of southwest desert or to spend days and days in Louisiana with relatives he never had met.
“Would you rather stay here?” Tom asked quickly. “I can use your help.”
“I guess.” Justin shrugged and looked at me. “You’re still going, aren’t you, Mom?”
I looked at Tom, watching his expression, as I fumbled for an answer. “Maybe. Probably. I don’t know. Hopefully. I guess.”
“Mom!” Justin laughed. “Just pick one answer and go with it. Yes or no.” He had not yet developed his father’s good manners of only laughing at me when I was trying to be funny. A few weeks with me gone and Tom at the helm would be good for this man-child, who thought he was so cool with the girls.
“She’s going,” Tom said firmly. “Hannah, too.”
Justin lifted one of his maile leaf garlands and placed it over my head, tapping my cheek with a kiss. “No ka oi, momi.”
Certain Hawaiian phrases have become as common as English in our corner of town. “No ka oi” was one of those phrases. It meant “the best.” “Momi” is a pearl and had long been my son’s nickname for me. In the way a ship is christened and named before being sent out to sea, I felt as if my man-child was christening me and, in his own way, was joining in with Tom’s blessing to send me off island.
What my boy lacked in manners he managed to make up for in charm. I knew that attribute would be useful as Justin navigated his way through the white water rapids ahead. He had splashed and crashed more than once on his passage from boyhood to manhood, but he had the feel of it now. I was confident that he would be more than ready for college in California by the end of this summer.
It was Hannah I was concerned about. She teetered on the edge of womanhood with a waterfall of transition waiting just ahead. This was her last year of elementary school. In the fall, Hannah would start at Princess Nahienaena Middle School. Last year two girls at Princess Nahienaena got pregnant and dropped out of eighth grade. Eighth grade! What would happen to my sweet Hannah once she was immersed in a sea of such adolescents?
The rest of the afternoon I thought about my little girl. This trip to Grand Lady’s in Louisiana really was for Hannah. The timing was perfect. God-time. A God-gift. My daughter would find in Louisiana the same blessing I had found when I was her age. I could barely believe that I’d made a wish and that wish was coming true.
When Hannah arrived home that afternoon, her face was beaming. She has my eyes. Small, round, and cocoa brown with a dove’s innocence. Her long, silky blond hair is her best feature, a gift from Tom’s Scandinavian heritage.
She held her hands behind her back and gleamed. “Guess what, Mom?”
I gleamed right back. “You’re going to the mainland.”
“No. Guess again,” she said.
I didn’t want to spoil her surprise with my surprise so I said, “I give up.”
“My lei won! First time ever. I got first place!”
Before Hannah pulled from behind her back the prize-winning lei, I knew which one she was holding. I also knew why I had liked it so much. Crayons to lipstick. Yes, that was my Hannah. Crayons to lipstick linked together by a string of bold, magenta- tinted bougainvillea as soft and colorful as a Louisiana garden full of ripe tomatoes.
Lei Day held for me the delicate promise of a wish about to come true. In a few short weeks my daughter and I would be greeted by the outstretched arms of Grand Lady herself.