Pakalaki Memories

Kirby Wright

Copyright 2002 by Kirby Wright


Photo of Diamond Head Memorial Park in Hawaii.

My Moloka'i grandmother rarely visited Oahu. "Pakalaki memories," she said. Gramma spoke a type of creole common on Moloka'i, a southern-like dialect interspersed with Hawaiian words. Returning to the island of her youth made Gramma feel defeated because it was where two men had deserted her.

One of those men, a blond named Wilkins, would have been my grandfather if he had stuck around. His London parents had decided to pay for his travels during The Great War so he wouldn't die fighting for his country. Wilkins met my grandmother at Ala Park in Honolulu, where she was a chorus girl for the Ziegfield Follies. He handed her a bouquet of roses when she hopped off the stage.  He told her she was more exotic than any girl in England. Two weeks later, they were engaged.

But my grandmother's hapa haole looks were not enough to keep Wilkins in the islands.  After he found out she was pregnant, he was on the next steamer bound for San Francisco. My father was born a bastard the first day of world peace.
Photo of Gramma and Wilkins.

The second man who left Gramma was Danford, a Portuguese longshoreman she'd met during her brother Sharkey's bootleg fight at Kapiolani Park. She had Wilkins' baby but Danford still dated her. When Danford got her pregnant, he told her he wasn't going to marry a girl who already had a bastard son.

* * *

If Gramma did travel to Oahu, she preferred to stay with my father's half-brother Tommy in Kaneohe rather than with us in Kahala. My big brother Ben and I were partly to blame. We'd bolt the front door whenever guests were expected and kept it bolted until they slipped dollar bills or coins under the door. On Gramma's first visit, we watched from behind the louvers as my father's Olds pulled into the driveway. Gramma got out and made her way to the door.

"Wha'd ya bring me," we asked her, "wha'd ya bring me?"

Gramma tested the knob. "Open the bloody do'."

"Wha'd ya bring me?" "A big stick."

Ben and I always exhausted Gramma's patience during our summers spent with her on Moloka'i. If we tried anything funny during her visits to Honolulu, she'd pull a bamboo stick out of her suitcase and whack us. My mother gave her the maid's room, a room with a bath on the street side of the house. Gramma hated the maid's room because it overlooked the sidewalk. She said sidewalks gave puhi'us an excuse to peek in while she was changing. And she didn't like the idea of "complete strangas" whizzing by in cars. Gramma told me our house was built kapakahi because only one door faced north and none faced south.  That meant ghosts marching down from the mountains at night to go fishing could enter but couldn't get out. She said she heard spirits searching the cupboards for food after midnight.

"Bet it was my father," I told her.

She shook her head. "I know what yo' fatha sounds like."

"Maybe it was my mother."

"Christ," she said, "that big horse sleeps like a log."

Gramma said she was sure it was spirits because she couldn't see any light from the kitchen spilling under her door. "Akua don't need light," she explained. I started thinking our house was a ghost trap and that thousands of ghosts were congregating in the hall, up in the attic and under my bed. I tried sleeping with rosary beads around my neck but I jerked my head and the beads nearly choked me.

My mother made Gramma feel less than welcome in Kahala. She'd never forgiven her for destroying our pink suits and hurling our baskets into a pineapple field during an Easter visit. And my mother hated her for never remembering her birthday. She would never make Gramma a lei and, if my father suggested it, she told him their were plenty of leis on sale at the airport. When it came to her mother-in-law, my mother believed in that old adage, "Familiarity breeds contempt." Gramma got the hint. Tommy started picking her up at the airport and taking her to his house in Kaneohe.

My father didn't like the idea of his half-brother entertaining their mother on the other side of the island. He was planning on having her sign over her ranch to him and, besides not wanting Tommy to know, he didn't want Gramma to soften up and give Tommy half. My father insisted on paying for her room at the Young Hotel in downtown Honolulu, a stone's throw from his law office.

"Oh, Normy," Gramma said, "that's big money."

"Nonsense," my father replied.

My mother nodded. "Now you have your privacy, Mother Daniels."

My father had formed a limited partnership with Gramma, an agreement where he paid her gas and grocery bills in exchange for deducting those expenses from his taxes. He made her sign papers saying they'd had meetings they never had. The partnership was a no-lose situation for my father and he gained the added benefit that he was providing for his mother while Tommy wasn't. Gramma's hotel room was a write-off. He'd already buttered her up with a new International Scout, a suji gill net, and a bigger cesspool. On birthdays, he sent her a big gold box of Mrs. See's Candies. He'd promised her a fiberglass boat, a German Shepherd, and a flushing toilet for her mountain house. The gifts and promises were proof of his love. He wanted her to know he was a devoted son who deserved Hale Kia, her ranch. Tommy rarely visited the Young Hotel because it reminded him that his older brother was paying for their mother's room. That hotel became my father's territory. If Gramma wanted to see Tommy, she had to meet him someplace neutral, like the Hob Nob Restaurant across the street.

My father had decided on the Young Hotel because of Gramma's weakness for sweets. The hotel boasted the best bakery on Oahu. He also knew she had a nostalgic interest in that hotel because, during the Forties, she'd jitterbugged with Alan Ladd in its ballroom. Despite the bakery and the memories, Gramma was leery about sleeping alone in a city she considered the crime center of the Pacific. She never ventured out alone. One night a drunk sailor banged on her door and begged "Lucky Lucy" to come out. Gramma called room service and ordered a butcher knife. Room service refused. She phoned HPD and got the sailor arrested. After that trauma, my father made sure Gramma got a room with twin beds and had Ben and me take turns spending the night with her. When it was my turn, I realized she wasn't meant for hotels. She was meant to be talking story in a kamaaina home, not stuck in a place full of malahinis. She told me she could hear noises through the walls and claimed people were "monkeyin' " with one another.

"Are you sure they're monkeying?" I asked.

"Screamin' an' bangin' ta beat the band."


"Just goin' it," she said.

Gramma's biggest fear was that she'd fall asleep smoking in bed and burn the hotel to the ground. She was so worried about fires that she kept a mini extinguisher in her val pack. She insisted on staying in the same room on the second floor because it was above the street and had a handy escape ladder. Gramma's room also had a view of Bishop Tower, my father's building. She said she could look out anytime and see him hard at work in his office. Occasionally, Gramma ordered room service. If I was over and she didn't finish something on her plate, I'd toss it out the window when she wasn't looking. Once I splattered a car's windshield with Eggs Florentine. Gramma didn't believe in giving tips so she earned a reputation as a skinflint. "Okole kala," I heard our Chinese waiter whisper to a bus boy after our Saturday breakfast of macadamia nut waffles in the coffee shop.

'I wanna visit my motha's grave," she said after paying at the register.

"Granny?" I asked.

She grabbed a handful of peppermint candies out of a glass jar next to the register. "The one ya stole diamonds from," she said and dropped the candies into her purse. Ben and I had found a ring encrusted with diamonds in our father's World War II locker and we took turns prying out the stones. We'd been caught and Ben decided Granny made us destroy the ring from the world of the dead because she didn't want our haole mother wearing it.

"Granny made me do it," I told Gramma.

"Ya bloody thief."

One thing about Gramma, she never let you forget a crime. But my criminal past wasn't enough to deny a visit to the bakery. The aroma of pastries wafted through the lobby as we walked a floor of black and white tiles. Gramma told me to stay on the black ones. A huge air conditioner blew out blasts of arctic air. There were glass cases loaded with eclairs, Danishes with swirls of apricot, raspberry and peach, and glistening bear claws. A haole baker in a chef's hat brought out a pan of poha berry cookies and stacked them in the cookie section. Haupia, guava and Black Forest cakes beckoned inside rotating displays. There was a special section featuring mint and rocky road brownies. The rocky roads were crammed with walnuts and had a layer of marshmallow below the fudge topping. The mints had a green layer.

"Let's get sumpthin' fo' yo' brotha," she said. "What's he like?"

"A dozen mint brownies."

"He can have one," she said, "and that's plenny."

"Ben likes eclairs too."

"Christ," she said, "yo' brotha's a damn hog."

"Can I help you?" asked the baker.

"Whacha want, Peanut?"

"An eclair."

"Two eclairs and one o' those mint brownies," Gramma told the baker. She opened a coin purse and placed a half-dollar on the stainless steel counter. When the baker told her she was a half-dollar short, she said, " 'Scuse me," and pulled out another from the purse.

We took the stairway back to the room because Gramma hated elevators after seeing a cable snap on an episode of Perry Mason. After we polished off the eclairs, she phoned my father at home and talked him into visiting the cemetery. It wasn't easy because I heard him yelling through the phone. He always got mad whenever she suggested something that wasn't on his agenda. She put the receiver down and looked like she was going to cry.

"Are we going?" I asked.

"We're goin'," she said. She opened her compact and applied rouge to her cheeks.

* * *

I waited with Gramma out in front of the hotel. A haole family walked by wearing the same Aloha print on their muumuus and shirts. I swung the paper bag that held Ben's brownie. A Filipino bellhop asked Gramma if she needed a cab. She told him she was a kamaaina and that her son was a big time attorney with a new Olds. The bellhop nodded and opened the hotel door for a Japanese woman exiting a cab.

It was strange seeing Gramma standing there in something besides ranch clothes. Instead of her usual jeans and palaka blouse, she wore a dress with an orchid print. Instead of cowboy boots, she wore sandals with one-inch heels. There was a string of champagne-colored pearls around her neck that she'd bought on sale at Kaunakakai Drugs. She still wore a lauhala hat, but she considered this one more sophisticated because it had a fine weave and narrow brim. She held a big purse with both hands and shifted her weight from one sandal to the other as we stood on the edge of the driveway. There was a look of discomfort on her face, as if she were worried about doing or saying the wrong thing in a city full of businessmen and criminals. She had applied her rouge unevenly_one cheek looked like she was blushing and the other had only a hint of pink. Red lipstick clung to her thin lips. Her eyeliner highlighted the slant of her eyes.

Out on Bishop Street, the lanes were jammed with traffic. A bus spewed exhaust. There was a light on the corner next to the Hob Nob Restaurant and the cars braked. Portuguese boys jogged along the median strip selling The Honolulu Advertiser. "Pay-pah," they called, "Hanalulu Advatizah!"

Gramma watched the boys. "These damn Portagee kids got mo' guts than my mo'opunas."

"Do not," I said.

"What grade ya in now, Peanut?"


The light turned green and Gramma watched the boys dodge traffic. "That big horse spoiled ya."

I tossed the package with the brownie up in the air and caught it with one hand.

"Christ," Gramma said, "that brownie'll be busticated by the time yo' brotha gets it."

I tossed the bag again. "Ben likes crumbs." I tried my one-hand catch and fumbled the bag on the sidewalk.

"Fo' the love o' Pete," Gramma said.

The Olds pulled up and I could see Ben in the back seat. He had our mother's blonde hair, green eyes, and refined features. I had the dark complexion of our hapa haole father. My mother wasn't in the Olds. Ben made the "kiss my ass" sign at me through the side window and pressed his lips to the glass. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt like me.

The bellhop opened the passenger door. "Have one shaka day," he told Gramma.

"Ya not gettin' a tip," she answered.

I climbed in back with Ben and Gramma slid into the front seat. The bellhop slammed the door. My father sped down Bishop Street toward the wharf. He wore horn-rimmed glasses like battle gear and had trouble smiling. He told Gramma he'd made reservations at a private club for lunch.

Ben punched me in the arm. "Wha'd Gramma buy you?" he asked.

"Chocolate eclairs and mint brownies."


"Where am I fat?" I asked. "Show me where I'm fat."

"You're fat all over, including the brain."

I handed him the bag. "Feed your face."

He opened the bag and grabbed the brownie. "I'm staying with Gramma tonight," he said and gobbled it down.

My father took the Waikiki way back because he wanted to point out all the hotels he'd drawn up contracts for. "The Ilikai wouldn't exist if it wasn't for me," he said. Gramma said how proud she was of Tommy managing the Queen's Surf nightclub. My father ran two yellow lights on Kalakaua Avenue. He braked for a third only because two squad cars were monitoring the intersection. Tourists streamed over the crosswalk. My father grimaced and looked at his watch. He seemed aggravated by Gramma's presence, as though she should be back on Moloka'i taking care of Hale Kia instead of wasting time in Honolulu. He'd already called her a kua'aina for coming off the plane wearing a fern-and-berry wreath around the crown of her hat. I'd seen the wreath on the dresser back at the hotel. They stopped talking and both fidgeted in their seats. Gramma stuck a Chesterfield on the end of a long chrome holder and lit it up with her Lancer's matches. She studied the tourists on the sidewalk and flicked ashes out the open window. "Damn puhi'us," she said.

We were heading for Diamond Head Memorial Park. I'd visited it once before with my father and Ben. My mother had come too and she waited in the car while we searched for the grave. Granny had died three months before he returned from Harvard. After widening our search, my father had given up and placed his carnations on a stranger's tombstone.

"Show people you love 'em while they're still alive," he'd said on the drive home.

"Death is so final," my mother'd said.

"When will I die?" I'd asked.

"When the cows jump over the moon," my father'd answered.

My father stopped at No Ka Oi Flowers in Kapahulu, where Gramma bought a dozen red torch ginger and a pikake lei. The ginger had long, thick stems with waxy red blossoms. Gramma had purchased the pikake because it had been the flower Granny liked best. She'd always promised herself to send Granny money but there was never anything extra because jobs on Moloka'i were scarce even for men. Gramma was never on good terms with her mother, especially after sneaking out of the house to make love to Wilkins. Still, Granny kept that picture of the Englishman on her wall in the hopes he would return. Although Granny had admired her daughter's fierce independence, she resented her willingness to sacrifice her body to please men.

My father turned down Monsarrat Avenue. He didn't believe in God or life after death. "When you're dead," he said, "you're dead." He never went to Mass with us, even at Easter and Christmas. He drove up an incline skirting the northern side of the volcano. The slopes were fuzzy with bright green brush. We approached the only Dairy Queen in east Honolulu.

"I wanna chocolate dip!" Ben said. His lips were covered with fudge from the brownie.

"A who?" asked Gramma.

"Dairy Queen."

"That's not real ice cream," my father said.

"I still want one."

"Kulikuli," Gramma said, "ya damn pest."

We turned left on 18th Avenue and then left again at the entrance for Diamond Head Memorial Park. My father pulled over beside a white stucco office shaded by a kamani tree. Gramma climbed out. Ben pushed her seat forward and I followed him over a strip of asphalt covered with seed pods. I could smell the pods baking on the asphalt.

"Don't go far," my father told us.

"We'll look for Granny," said Ben.

"No funny business," Gramma said.

My father and Gramma headed over to the office. She looked tiny walking beside him. He opened the door and they disappeared inside.

The cemetery was on the eastern edge of the crater, the side Waikiki never sees. Clouds drifted like kites across the sky. The park's plumeria trees were loaded with pink blossoms. Dirt was mounded around open graves. The tombstones were massive; Chinese and Japanese symbols were carved on some of the faces. One had a portrait of a cat. A mynah bird landed on a slab of marble and pecked at it. I heard moaning and saw an end loader moving dirt on the east side of the cemetery. The American flag hung limp on a pole next to a bone-white mausoleum. There were daisies and marigolds in plastic pots on some of the graves. A Chinese couple stood beside a headstone. The stone came up to the man's chest and he hugged it like it was a person. Clouds moved over the sun.

Ben tagged me. "You're it."

I chased him through the rows. "Don't step on the graves," I said.

Ben stood behind the trunk of a plumeria tree. Next to him was a grave marked by a green sun dial that had IN SILENCE I SPEAK engraved on the dial.

"What's wrong with stepping on graves?" Ben asked.

"If you do, the ghost will follow you."

"Who says?"


"She's bugs." He ran out from behind the tree and jumped on a bronze tombstone shaped like an open book. He danced on the bronze pages in his Keds. "I love ghosts."

I saw my father and Gramma heading across the lawn. Instead of walking with her, he walked several feet in front. I could tell she was having trouble in her heels. The strap of her purse was slung over one shoulder and the purse swung back and forth like a canteen.

Ben said safe base was a black tombstone with offerings of oranges and incense sticks. The incense had burned away and fruit flies were camped on the oranges. I tagged him and reached safe base. Ben changed his mind about the headstone being safe and chased me around it. I accidentally kicked an orange and it rolled down the row of graves.

"Cut that out," my father said.

"No respect," Gramma said, shaking her head.

My father unfolded a map and pointed to an "x" made in pencil. "Thirty three graves north of the curb," he said.

"Which way's north?" Ben asked.

"Toward the mountains."

Ben ran to the curb and started counting. When he reached thirty three, we looked down at a grave marked by gray granite laid flat on the earth. Pink veins ran through a slab that read:


Catarina Punawai Gill


    Her Memory Will Live Forever

"How come it's not bigger?" I asked.

My father put his hands in his pockets. "She couldn't afford it."

"Can't we buy her a bigger one?"

"It's too late now."

"Ya kids help out," Gramma said.

Ben and I helped Gramma pull the overgrown grass and kuku weeds covering the granite. I spotted a sunken plastic tube meant for flowers. The tube was dry but Ben found an empty soda can and filled it at a drinking fountain next to a statue of the crucified Jesus. He poured water into the tube and we helped Gramma wedge in the stems of the torch ginger. After the stems were secure, she took off her hat and said a prayer in Hawaiian. I wasn't sure what she was saying but her voice was soft and sad. My father kept his eyes on the crater.

Mist began to fall.

"Let's go, mother."

"Just anotha minute, Normy." She pulled out the pikake lei and spread the blossoms out so that they framed the slab.

My father looked at his watch. "Cheesus," he said, "we've been here all morning."

But it wasn't all morning. It wasn't even half-an-hour. My father had reservations at the Outrigger Canoe Club and he hustled us back to the car. On the way over to Pueo Street to get our mother, Gramma seemed subdued in the front seat. She took off her hat and didn't light up. "Don't bury me, Normy," she said.

"What?" my father asked.

"I don't wanna grave."

"How can you not have a grave?" Ben asked.

"I wanna be ashes."

"Then we can't visit you," I said.

"I don't want ya too, Peanut."

"How come?"

"I don't wanna be remembered," she said.

* * *

We drove Gramma to the airport the next day. She rode between my parents in the front seat. Ben was in back with me. I cranked open the side window for air. Gramma wore a black dress with a white stripe running vertically off either shoulder. She had on a white fedora with a black band. The hat was cocked to one side and it reminded me of the gangster hats in The Untouchables. Instead of pearls, she wore the plumeria lei I'd made her.

Ben had spent the night with Gramma but he told me she hadn't taken him to the bakery. She claimed she wasn't one for sweets. When he said he was, Gramma told him the combination of eating pastries and drinking juice would make his urine "acidy." She said the acid would eat huge holes through his bladder and kill him. When he told her he was willing to risk death to eat an eclair, she told him to paha his waha. My father took the Nimitz Highway to the airport and drove past the lei stands. He said Tommy had just been fired as night manager of Queen's Surf for flirting with a Japanese waitress and drinking on the job.

"My Tommy can hold his liquor," Gramma said.

"Not this time," my father replied.

"I'm goin' ta call Tommy and find out."

"Don't you believe me, mother?"

" 'Course I believe ya, Normy."

"Let's face it," he said, "Tommy's a lush."

"Maybe he can get some help," my mother suggested.

My father frowned. "He'll never change."

We waited with Gramma at the terminal. The day was hot and time dragged. We talked about things like Hale Kia's tides, the horses, and whether gardenias were blooming outside her mountain house. My father kept looking at his watch. Gramma lit a cigarette and sucked at it through her chrome holder. The plumeria on her lei were turning brown. When the plane finally arrived, Gramma crossed the tarmac and took the steps up to the plane. We waited for her to wave to us when she reached the top step, the way she always did when she was leaving Honolulu.

She boarded without looking back.

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