July 17th, 2009
Some of my best childhood memories live on a plot of land at the base of Pauoa Valley, where I most consistently spent my youth – or my life, for that matter. It’s a three-quarter acre parcel that my Chinese relatives acquired somewhere before the turn of the century, in Territorial Hawaii.
The property has only one opening, and that is the very busy Pali Highway. For decades, however, before the highway was built, that road ambled by as the two-lane Fort Street. Great-grandfather Ching Amana bought the land from his daughter Ah Lin’s boss. She cleaned house for him at his main estate in Nuuanu. There was a large, multi-family home in the center of the plot.
Sometime in the1920s, after my grandparents were married, my grandmother’s brother, Thomas, built a second home in the corner of the property, just for them. It’s where my mother was born. It was a three bedroom home for my grandparents and their two children.
I romanticize that it must have been a pretty peaceful life, because my mother describes co-existing with several families, living communally off the land, raising livestock and tending gardens. It seemed quaint.
In the 1960s, the first house was knocked down to make way for an apartment complex. My uncle, who I think of like a second father, ran that for half a century. I’ll just call him Unc here.
My mom left the house for college, but after giving birth to me, we all returned to 1735 Pali Highway to do that oh-so-popular Hawaii thing: live with your parents. As a mom, I can appreciate why my own parents wanted to have a ‘village’ to raise their child.
As a child, I loved it. I have a lot of cousins, aunts, and uncles, and there were constantly people dropping by, sharing food and companionship, dawdling for gossip, and bringing their kids for me to play with. I was raised as an only child, but I never hurt for company.
I remember Unc taking me for walks down to Chun Hoon, where he would let me pick out one toy. If I missed his weekly grocery run, he would bring home a comic book for me. Biannually, he vacationed in Japan, and I would miss him for the weeks he was away. I looked forward to the Japanese trinkets he would bring back. Sometimes, he went to San Francisco, and the gift from there was always teriyaki beef jerky.
We had five dogs living in various cages scattered around the yard. Totally local, huh? He actually built a dog house for the dog living under the lychee tree, and I got the fabulous, exciting opportunity to PAINT IT! I loved it! I think I got more white paint on myself than the dog house. I remember thinking that I liked to paint my nails, so how much harder could this be? I found out painting is hard!
There were also rabbits, turtles, and several species of birds living in huge aviaries that Unc built. (No cats. He hates cats.) And wonderful trees that would produce avocado, lychee, and the best mangoes. It’s probably why mangoes are my favorite fruit. He also taught me to ride a bike!
I left Hawaii for college, but I eventually came back in 1996 to work at KHNL. My generous uncle offered me a place to live in one of the apartment units, for a discount. I liked being home again. My mother liked the idea of having someone she could trust watch over me. I think I gave her a lot of stress by living in random cities, all by myself, across the continent for so many years.
I remained close to Unc for many years, even after I moved away from the Pali. Then several years ago, a dispute between two relatives cleaved its way into my life and Unc’s life, effectively forcing us to pick sides. You might know how that goes: you say you’re too mature to have to choose a side, but de facto, you are forced to call out your loyalty for one reason or another. We landed on opposite sides of the fence.
I accepted it with sadness, because I had hoped he would meet my child. I settled it out in my head that it’s what he has to do, and that it’s not a reflection of how he really feels about me. Politics is a tricky thing.
In the winter of 2008, I received an exciting message at work: “Call Unc.” Call him? He is asking me to call him? Was the dispute over? I did, but he was only asking me to come by and pick up some of my mom’s belongings that had been in storage there for decades. He had sold the land – getting too old to manage the property anymore – and had to be out in a few months.
After the 10 p.m. news, I went by to get Mom’s stuff. He’s an old Chinese man, curmudgeonly and terse - moreso with age and disability. I can count on one hand the number of words exchanged between us. But it was more the energy that I got off him – the same kindheartedness I remember from my childhood – that told me he missed me, too. Before he closed the door, I made sure to tell him I loved him.
I loaded up my car and let out a bittersweet sigh. It was a wonderful gift Unc gave me, to be able to see him and the place of my youth one more time. He’s 85; I never thought I’d find myself talking to him again. It was near midnight, the city was quiet, I was alone in the parking lot, and it hit me with more emotion than I realized to be standing at my old home again.
The new buyers were planning to raze the land and erect their own structures. I knew this was the last chance to look at my piece of history, so I took a quick walk around, feet finding all the same steps, stones, paths, and turns that I have made a thousand times before.
I smelled the fragrant night air, closed my eyes, and felt the cool breeze against my face. I touched the lava rock wall around my grandparents’ old house. I even listened to the constant whizzing of the freeway traffic – something I had ages and ages ago learned to tune out. And then I said goodbye.