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By Susanna Moore
Hardcover, 208 pages
List Price: $19.95
Oh God! For we were all swallowed up in a moment
No memory presents itself of my first acquaintance with the sea. It was always there, and I was always in it.
One summer when my mother was recovering from a breakdown, we lived on the beach at Punalu'u on the north shore of the island of Oah'u. There were five children, of whom I was the eldest. That summer, I was eight years old. My mother was fairly irresistible. She was our leader. We would have jumped into a fire had she wished it. As it was, she had us jumping into the ocean.
I swam in the morning and again in the early afternoon. I swam at sunset. I would swim until I was tired, although not too tired to make it back to the beach. I found a hole in the reef into the deep water at the edge of the channel. If I swam far enough, I could see the big rock on the side of the mountain that marked the site of the shark-god's burial place. Sometimes I was overcome by an inexplicable feeling of panic, as if there were too much beneath and above me. I feared that the ocean might suddenly curl me into a wave and fling me from the loneliness of Earth into the loneliness of space, and I would hurry back through the reef as if the ocean were trying to catch me.
As my mother became less and less rational, I grew convinced that I could see parts of bodies on the clean floor of the ocean. For some time, and to everyone's bafflement, I would not go into the ocean. I spent my time instead with books, quickly exhausting the resources of the small provincial library where I discovered, among other things, that erotic masterpiece about Charles II, Forever Amber. I'd been given per mission by the amiable librarian, a Samoan woman intent on converting me to Mormonism, to borrow books from the Adults Only shelves after she received a letter from my mother in which my mother duplicitously claimed that the books were for her own use. When I had read all of the library's collection, I was allowed to order books by telephone from a store in downtown Honolulu.
The days were long, as summer days are for children in the countryside, and I found for myself a secret spot where I could read in a grove of coconut palms. The trees were said to have been planted by the King in 1830, and it was a cool and shaded place. There was the sound of the trade wind in the branches, and I could just make out the voices of my brothers and sisters in the water—the constant rush and sweep of the ocean made them sound like angry birds.
In the late afternoon, the men from the neighbourhood would gather on the lawn where they would play music through the night. I'd emerge from the grove each evening, books in hand, dazed and a little sleepy. By the end of the summer, and thanks to Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies, I'd returned to the ocean. I never left it again.
I know from my signature in the endpaper of Robinson Crusoe that I read it in March of 1954.
I was eight years old, which seems hardly possible except that I recall reading it with great clarity. I was overcome by the idea of shipwreck. I suspect the unconscious was doing its work; my family, while high-strung, was not a shipwreck quite yet, but I divined its coming.
During the winter, we lived in the mountains in Tantalus, a fragrant rain forest, in a large 19th-century shingled house. In place of my palm grove in Punalu'u, I created my version of Crusoe's island, complete with a lean-to made of palm fronds, stocked with old ropes, carefully-rendered maps of hidden treasure and hemp bags of dried fruit and stale bread. I had my own Friday in the form of my younger brother, Rick. It was then that I began to keep a journal about the sea by copying passages from the books I was reading. I began with Defoe, who led me to Stevenson and Conrad, among many others. I was very pleased to discover that Marie Antoinette read the Journals of Captain Cook while imprisoned in the Temple.
Hawaii was a ravishing little world. It was an isolated place, redolent with romance. Before the development of jet air-travel in the late 1950s, it had been difficult to reach the Islands—five days by ship from San Francisco (Los Angeles did not exist for us; it was thought to be a little vulgar). It was an hierarchical, snobbish and quietly racist society. This charming, even enchanting life of a mainly haole elite was to change, of course, but it lasted for a very long time.
The houses in which I lived were not of spectacular design; most often a vernacular version of a colonial villa, or a house of a simplified New England Greek Revival style with slender columns and a tin roof, or an oversized California bungalow in the Arts and Crafts style, sometimes grand with a screened Greene and Greene sleeping porch and porte cochere like our grey shingled house in Tantalus. Some children, those whose parents were architects or left¬wing lawyers who represented longshoremen and other Communists, lived in more modern houses of poured cement and steel, one of which, I remember, was built rather snugly around a large monkeypod tree, suggesting that the growth of the tree had not been sufficiently calculated. Houses at the beach or in the mountains of Wai'anae, or Koke'e on the island of Kaua'i, were made of wood, well-constructed but extremely simple (not in a chic way), indistinguishable but for size from the cottages in the workers' camps built at the turn of the century by Japanese craftsmen, sometimes to sublime effect with carved eaves and porch posts and tansu-like cupboards of ohi'a wood. The houses in the mountains had large stone fireplaces; the beach houses and sometimes even the big houses had outdoor showers. Occasionally, a porcelain bathtub was placed in the jungly part of the garden and filled when necessary with rainwater that was stored in large wooden tanks. This water was a rusty reddish-brown color and we used it to wash our hair as well as to bathe. Mainland guests who were unaccustomed to the collecting of rain thought that we chose to wash in dirty water but, out of politeness, never complained, and we did not know to explain. I sometimes worried about the tourists. I did not under stand why they had come so far, excluded as they were from the secret and mythical world that I knew, and I was made anxious by the ease with which they were satisfied—a boat ride around Pearl Harbor to look at the sunken warships and the Kodak Hula Show with dancers in cellophane skirts seemed to suffice. It was the first time that I was to be confused by the difference between what people were willing to accept and what more there was for the taking.
The maids were Japanese; the cook was Chinese, sometimes Filipino. The gardeners were Japanese and the yardmen often the descendants of Portuguese plantsmen from the Azores. Hawaiians were never servants or gardeners; they were sometimes, but rarely, lawyers or doctors or schoolteachers—not because they were discouraged or deterred, but because it held little interest for them. It did not occur to anyone that they wished to be what is called professional, and to all appearances, they didn't.
It took my young mother from Philadelphia, a newcomer then to the Islands, some time to relinquish her East Coast idea of how children ought to look and behave (sterling silver food pushers, like little hoes, to use before a knife was mastered, and tiny correspondence cards engraved with my initials suitable for enclosing with birthday presents). Big rectangular boxes noisy with tissue paper would arrive at the end of August from Best and Co. in New York with seersucker shorts and jackets for the boys, white linen blouses with red rickrack, plaid bathing costumes well elasticized, brown lace-up shoes, navy blue cardigans with faille trim, dresses smocked with little ducks, and piqué sun hats, but she gamely admitted her own particular failure of myth when we eventually rebelled and refused to wear the clothes. At home and when we were not at school, girls wore printed cotton mu'umu'us in unusually bright patterns, and Chinese pajamas with loose trousers, often of shantung or pongee, reaching to the middle of the shin. Twice a year, we were taken downtown to McInerny's where clothes would be laid out for our approval by solemn Japanese saleswomen. The McInernys had been early residents of the islands and had done well, making it all the more thrilling to watch old Miss McInerny boldly stuff girdles, bathing caps, and evening gowns into worn brown paper sacks.
Each night, so we were told, Miss McInerny's maid collected all the things that the old lady had stolen that day and returned them to the store, a system that seemed to please everyone, including us. We wore leis whenever we could (during the Second World War, lei-makers were put to work making camouflage nets), not only on special occasions, and flowers in our hair. Once freed of the Best and Co. boxes, my bathing suits were made for me at Linn's, a small shop on Lewers Avenue, a shaded side street off Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki. The bathing suit was always the same: two-piece, made of white cotton duck or yellow sharkskin; the bottom not quite a bathing suit but not tennis shorts either, with two vertical rows of buttons that made a flap in front like that on sailors' trousers, and two thin vertical grosgrain stripes down the outside of each leg, usually in navy or red. They were astonishingly smart.
Bicycles were important. We often rode our rusty (the sea air) Schwinns to the old Waialae Country Club for lunch. As the club did not really get busy until the mysteriously named Happy Hour, we were able to commandeer one of the rickety green-felt card cables in the deserted Game Room, consuming egg salad sandwiches and Country Club Ice Tea (the d is not used at the end of a word in pidgin; it is 'use cars' and 'barbecue chicken') made with pineapple juice and night, was spent in the trees, or on the beach, despite the mosquitoes and sand fleas, accompanied by two of our dogs, ungroomed and slightly foul-smelling (the salt water) black poodles, who were not then required to be on leads. We climbed the mountain called Koko Head—once named Kohelepelepe or Vagina Labia Minor—the fire goddess Pele was saved from being raped there by the pig-warrior Kamapua'a when her occasionally loyal sister, Hi'iaka, displayed her vagina to distract him—once innocently breaching the perimeter that a brigade of Marines had established in a war game and, to the curses of the officers, occasioning the failure of the operation.
I kept a large pet spider partly out of affection and partly to eat insects. She sat on my shoulder, retiring under my clothes to sleep. A red thread was tied to one leg (hers) so that I could haul her to safety should I wish to swim or lie down. I finally sat on her, and was somewhat relieved to be rid of her.
My youngest sister was placed eight months after her birth in my wicker bike-basket (lined in blue-and-white palaka) and accompanied us on all our jaunts.
Excerpted from Light Years by Susanna Moore. Copyright © 2008 by Susanna Moore. All rights reserved.