May Day is Lei Day by
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(36 Stories)

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Two weeks into our vacation, I don’t want to leave. I’ve fallen in love…with an island. Kauai.

“So don’t leave,” Susie says. My best friend is like that. “Stay with us!”

“But how would I make a living? What would I do? I wouldn’t want to be a court reporter here, wear stockings and high heels. I mean, what would be the point of moving here for that?”

“So do something else.”

“Hmmm,” I say.

“I know,” she says, “make cheesecakes!” My friend knows that I had enjoyed a short career baking cheesecakes for restaurants. “Why don’t you make a sample and I’ll get Tommy to take it to work and see if Roger likes it enough to add it to his menu.” Tommy, the caretaker on her property, who also builds surfboards, is also a waiter at The Dolphin, the most popular restaurant on the north shore.

Well, Roger, the owner of the Dolphin, doesn’t like the cheesecake, he loves the cheesecake, so much so that he wants to add it to the menu for his other three restaurants as well. Bingo! Sure, it’s not enough to make a real living, but it’s a beginning, a new beginning.

I call my mom. “We’re not coming home.”

“What?”

“We’re staying.”

“Are you kidding me? What about all your stuff?”

“I’ll come get it at some point, but for now we’re just going to make do with what we have. You don’t need much here, just flip-flops, shorts, t-shirts, a bikini, and a sweater in case it gets cold.

My mother thinks I’ve lost my mind.

My daughter is none too happy with me either. We’re alone in the wikiup, the screened-in porch we’re staying in on the property, deep in the interior of the island, in Waimea Valley. There’s no hot water or bathroom — there’s an out building nearby — but there’s a small fireplace, a neat stack of wood sitting nearby, and I’ve learned how to build a proper fire. When the rain roars through the valley, as it does every day on the north shore, it pounds so hard on the tin roof that we can’t hear our own voices, so we just cuddle up and listen to the beat as it varies in intensity, tone, and tempo.

Now I’m propped up against a pillow reading, and there she stands, defiant, crossing her skinny seven-year-old arms and pouting.

“Mom, I don’t want to live in Hawaii,” she says.

“How do you know?” I ask, reaching out and pulling her closer to me. She resists, then gives in, crawls up, and settles into my lap, lets me wrap my arms around her. I nuzzle the top of her head.

“Well, for one thing, I don’t even like the beach. And because,” and now she starts to cry, “I don’t want to leave my friends, or Grandma.”

“Look at me, sweetie,” I say and turn her around to face me. She rarely cries, but when she does I’m almost enchanted by those big wet tears seeping through her lush lashes, then sliding down her smooth checks.

“I don’t want to move,” she sobs.

“Honey, we’ll just give it a try, and if we don’t like it we can always move back home.”

“Really? Well, okay,” she sniffs, “as long as we can move home.”

Of course she doesn’t want to leave L.A. But I have my reasons — good reasons, I might add — and my mind is made up.

 

And so it is that Erin enters the 2nd grade at Hanalei Elementary School, where just across the road Puff the Magic Dragon, or at least his likeness, perches in the shape of a low, green mountain and looks out over Hanalei Bay. On day one she is denied the use of a red crayon by a classmate who snatches it from her hand and says simply “Not for haoles.” Erin acquiesces but tells me about it later in a defiant voice.

“It’s not fair!” she says.

“No, it’s not,” I agree.

“Anyway, what’s a haole?” she asks.

“It just means you weren’t born here,” I say.

“Well, that’s not my fault,” she says.

“That’s absolutely true. So what did you do?” I ask.

“I just chose another color,” she shrugs.

Children are resilient, and by week’s end she and that little girl had become fast friends. Each school day Susie and I would pile our kids into her little green Karmann Ghia convertible and, crooning “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” at the top of our lungs, rattle down the rutted road toward the school. And six months later, once we’d moved into our own place, Erin walked barefoot to the bus stop, the trade winds kissing her skin. At night the stars were so thick I once pulled off the road and into a meadow, stopped the car, opened the door, and tugged her out.

“Look up,” I said.

“Mommy, I’m too sleepy.”

“Look up, sweetie,” I said, “and take a picture with your mind. Click.” I just knew I’d done the right thing in moving to Kauai, in choosing to bring her up there.

 

Years passed, I was now known as the cheesecake lady and eventually opened a restaurant, and my daughter blossomed like the fragrant plumerias in our garden. Once she reached the sixth grade, with the whisperings of spring in the air, she had the remarkable honor of being chosen and crowned “Lei Day Queen,” complete with a King and Court. May Day is a BIG deal in Hawaii, a statewide celebration of the aloha spirit, and everyone celebrates. As the song goes:

“May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii

Garlands of flowers everywhere

All of the colors in the rainbow

Maidens with blossoms in their hair.”

Privately taught the history and expressive, evocative movements by a kumu hula, Erindressed in a custom-made traditional white gown, adorned with a lei of mokihana flowers and ti leaves, performed the hula on stage, in the school auditorium, in front of the entire student body and their families. Standing room only.

 

“When you see Hanalei by moonlight 
You will be in Heaven by the sea 

Every breeze, every wave will whisper 
You are mine don’t ever go away 

Hanalei, Hanalei moon  
Is lighting beloved Kauaʻi  

Hanalei, Hanalei moon  
Aloha nō wau iā ʻoe.”

Years later, Erin would name her first-born daughter Leila, and her second Hana Lei.

[Note re audio clip: Hanalei Moon – Dennis Pavao was one of several Hawaiian musicians who, during the 1970s, led a Hawaiian music renaissance, reviving Hawaiian music, especially “ka leo ki’eki’e,” or Hawaiian falsetto singing. Along with his cousins, Ledward and Nedward Kaʻapana, Pavao started the group Hui ʻOhana. Although Hawaiian music, with its ukulele and slack-key guitar style, may be an acquired taste, after having lived on Kauai for a decade, hearing it takes me back in time to some wonderful years.]

Erin’s wedding, on Kauai, about 15 years ago, with my brothers, my mother, my granddaughters and yours truly.

 

Profile photo of Barbara Buckles Barbara Buckles
Artist, writer, storyteller, spy. Okay, not a spy…I was just going for the rhythm.

I call myself “an inveterate dabbler.” (And my husband calls me “an invertebrate babbler.”) I just love to create one way or another. My latest passion is telling true stories live, on stage. Because it scares the hell out of me.

As a memoirist, I focus on the undercurrents. Drawing from memory, diaries, notes, letters and photographs, I never ever lie, but I do claim creative license when fleshing out actual events in order to enhance the literary quality, i.e., what I might have been wearing, what might have been on the table, what season it might have been. By virtue of its genre, memoir also adds a patina of introspection and insight that most probably did not exist in real time.

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Characterizations: been there, well written

Comments

  1. BB , It’s wonderful learning more about you and Erin and your storied past!
    Aloha!

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Lovely story of learning to fit in and to love your new surroundings. Sounds like Paradise to me!

  3. Marian says:

    Barbara, this is so lovely and evocative, and your daughter is beautiful. I love the photos of the hula and the music to it. This story brought me back to a brief time in Kauai and longer times staying with friends in Maui. I actually got to like the Hawaiian music, too. Have you heard of Amy Gilliam (she has a Hawaiian name but I can’t remember it)? We used to go to Hapa’s in Maui and listen to her amazing performances.

    • Mare, I’m so pleased you enjoyed the audio…most people cringe when they hear Hawaiian music. It only seems to work when you’re IN Hawaii! The singer you mentioned is Amy Hanaialii Gilliom and she is known for that particular kind of falsetto singing. She’s amazing…wish I’d seen her in person!

  4. Suzy says:

    Oh wow, amazing story, and I really want to taste your cheesecake! Hope you still have the recipe! I’m amazed that you moved to Hawaii on the spur of the moment – and it worked out! Your daughter is wonderful, as a small child in the top picture, as the Lei Day Queen, and at her Hawaiian wedding! Thank you for the pictures, they add so much to the mood you have perfectly created with your prose. The audio clip of the song is great too! A multimedia experience!

    • Cheesecake is a topic that weaves through my life’s story, and I hope you’ll have the chance to taste it. If we ever have a meet-up, that will definitely be my contribution! I’m so glad you enjoyed the multimedia experience.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    Barb, you continue to amaze me. What an interesting life you have led. You are a true free spirit. I loved being able to hear the song and to see the photos of Erin and your family. You are a woman of many talents, all of them creative. Do you share your cheesecake recipe?

    • Aw, Laurie…thanks so much! Please forgive me if I don’t share my cheesecake recipe right now…it’s a treasured family recipe with a lot of history which I do intend to write about in an upcoming story — and I might just share it then.

  6. gbuckles says:

    As the husband of this amazing woman, I can assure you she makes the best cheesecake. So many people have complimented her on the recipe. Unfortunately, she is reluctant to make one now since she made so many of them over the years. That’s too bad although it’s probably best for my waistline!

  7. John Shutkin says:

    What a great, great story! Particularly since I didn’t know your background, I kept expecting it to all be a wild day dream and then you came to your senses, booked the next flight to LAX, went to law school and, years later, your daughter was Homecoming Queen at Beverly Hills High. Thusa, an absolute delight to learn that you actually and wonderfully lived all this. And, of course, that your daughter “came around” — to say the least!

    And I totally respect your secret about the cheesecake. Fortunately, I have my mother’s recipe.

    • Thanks, John! I have to laugh at your scenario…as much as I admire a sharp legal mind, I’m afraid don’t have one. I remember getting lost halfway through a Perry Mason episode. There, I said it.

      At some point I am going to spill the secret to my mother’s cheesecake recipe…I wonder how close it will be to your mother’s.

  8. Kauai is magical, and so is your story – brava!!

  9. I share your love of Kauai! What a sweet and sensory filled story, Barbara!
    Your descriptive phrases and focus on relationship with your daughter swept me along. Love it!

  10. John Zussman says:

    What a captivating story. As a Fellow Traveler who has also lived in Hawaii, I empathize with the lure of the islands that plants the question in your mind, “Why even go back?” They say Pele keeps the ones she wants and throws the rest back, and obviously you and Erin were keepers. That said, I also understand the cultural politics that presumably brought you back. We will have to compare notes someday, preferably sitting on a beach over piña coladas and cheesecake!

    • What an astute observation, John…Pele does indeed let you know whether or not you’re welcome. When we first arrived, doors seemed to open before we even knocked; towards the end of our almost 10-year sojourn, it felt like they were closing. It was simply time to go. But, man, the idea of piña coladas and cheesecake on a beach in Hawaii is a dream worth hanging on to, especially at this very moment. Thanks!

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