The Women

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


There is a corner in my wee home that holds the photos and keepsakes of my women ancestors. The photos are of my grandmother, May; my mother, Lucille and my Chinese grandmother, whom I knew only as Ahpo. She spoke no English, but my daughter has her smiling almond eyes. In this, the connection is confirmed. Each and every one of them had a long and arduous life, a lifetime filled with lifetimes.

My Chinese grandmother immigrated from China to Hawaii to marry a crippled man. The rumors are that the least expensive passage was to be smuggled in a coffin-like box. She spent the remainder her days in Honolulu working the pineapple fields and raising eight children, all birthed at home. The last birth was a twin birth, but there was no one present who knew that and so the second twin did not live. His brother has been living a full life. He is a physician and philosopher, musician, writer and world traveler. He is a teller of tales and the keeper of family lore. I believe he has made his brother proud. My mother was her third daughter, Sam Moi. These were the names my grandfather intended to give the children when he registered them at the city hall. The women at the desk convinced my grandfather that the babies must have proper names. It was these women who named my aunts and uncles. I always wondered how my non-English speaking grandparents came up with such a motley collection of English names for their children Loretta, Edmund, Lawerence, Kathryn, etc.. I actually never knew all of their names until I was older because they called each other by their Chinese names: First Son, Second Son, First Daughter. All of these Chinese names were abbreviated to names that filled my childhood with chuckles and bewilderment. Let's, see...there was Uncle Duck, Uncle See, Aunty Y. The images that were conjured in my mind's eye were plentiful, fanciful ducks, an elaborately written letter C and simply, Y? Why? 
As Hawaiian culture dictates, anyone who is close to one's family instantly becomes an uncle or an Aunty. I suppose I was ten when I realized that Aunty Betty, who was Hawaiian-Korean, was not in fact related to me at all. She and my Aunty Nancy were actually my mother's oldest and dearest friends, but were an integeral part of our lives. Their children were like our own cousins. The Korean aunty thing really confused me. How can she be Korean when nobody in our family is Korean? 
The other funny thing about the Chinese part of my Hawaiian-Chinese background, is that the Chinese part NEVER tells anyone, anything! Yes, every secret is a deep family secret. Even if it is not a secret, even if it is just a misunderstanding, it becomes a silent secret held by all. I spent most of my childhood in the dark. I never knew real names, real lives or if I were actually related to the people I so dearly loved. 
In short, I grew up loving everyone and knowing nothing. Not a bad thing in the end. More to come...

2 comments:

Frank said...

I am truly grateful to those women; whose intelligence, beauty, grace and strength were so completely and faithfully passed down to their progeny. Thank you ladies.

Liz said...

It is so beautiful that you keep pictures of those ladies in your house. I love old family photos, they're everywhere in our house.