My mother delighted us when she cut her hair short, started hula lessons, and went to live in a house of vibrant widows and their dogs near my sister in Vermont. Did you know there’s a town known more for hula-loving widows than leaf peeping and skiing? Check the guidebooks. Envision all seven of them in their hand-knit sweaters and lined wool pants practicing in the town square that’s raining liquidambar leaves.
That’s the slow motion scene that opens my nephew’s award-winning documentary film. Miraculously, Mom and her friends have enjoyed fifteen minutes of fame on her beloved PBS. On my secondhand TV she seemed almost vivacious, talking about how the dancing makes her feel. How she never learned as a child in Hawaii, because her mother said Methodists don’t dance. She is the only one who grew up there, although her housemates have deep ties of their own to the enchanted isles. My mother’s eyes shone with a long-forgotten sparkle.
My ancient grandmother also saw the film, sandwiched between the medieval Japanese soap operas she loves to watch while she crochets. A sign that her wayward daughter does miss home, although she’s been on the mainland for decades. How clever to travel without jetlag via satellite to 122-A Boyd Lane in Honolulu. After the final credits rolled, my grandmother went down to her dark crawlspace below the cinder block house and retrieved some of her precious honey. She wrapped the jar carefully and packed it off by UPS for her middle child to put in her tea. Imagine hula dancing in such a cold place!
With every wave of her industrious hands, my mother’s anxiety and self-forgetting clear after years of orbiting my father, caught in his strong gravitational pull. She was a good wife, devoted to the end. As his ashes continue to feed all manner of Pacific sea creatures, the sun and sea gestures freshen her spirit. With only a few dear possessions in her room, she is light and free. Sometimes she mistakenly calls the youngest dog Brownie, the name of her childhood mutt. But other than that, she is now sharper, more defined and growing fiercely into herself, just like her own tiny mother has managed to do.
A nightmare has finally landed me here in the house of hula widows. I’ve endured the flailing limbs of a drunken seatmate on the red eye from Los Angeles all because of a stupid dream. It was an existential Busby Berkeley number that ended with a giant lava flow devouring synchronized hula dancers. Pele’s revenge. The last thing I remember: grass skirts and kikui nut necklaces arranged in perfect patterns on the newly formed earth’s crust, still glowering orange beneath the blackness.
Three old ladies watch me sleep on the couch well into the morning. My eyes are covered with a satiny mask and my ears are stoppered as I pursue lost hours of rest. Maybe I can feel their penetrating gazes, for suddenly I rise up with an urgent bladder and nearly knock poor Edie over. I push up the mask, apologize, and stumble to the bathroom.
“We thought you had a fight with your husband,” says Carlotta when I return.
“I don’t have a husband. I have Brady.” I’m not quite awake yet and try to wrap myself in the blankets again.
“Did you divorce him?” squeaks Edie.
“Is Brady your lover man?” winks Janet.
“Where are your kids today?” asks Carlotta.
That’s when I understand that they’re confusing me with the good daughter Mari. She, with her perfect husband and kids and dog, lives an hour away and visits every third weekend. I don’t think Mari and I look alike, but apparently we do.
I introduce myself to the ladies, letting them know I’m the other daughter from California. My mother appears then from another wing of the low sprawling house, saving me from more questions. She offers to make me French toast, and although I don’t eat bread anymore, I happily accept.
Today, our first day together in years, I take Mom to see the ducks in the pond at an organic farm a few miles away, like she did for me when I was a child. There was always some new little pond or stream to discover in the fertile farmland where Mari and I grew up in New Jersey, before all the housing developments sprouted like some alien spore. As we scatter stale cornbread upon the water, Mom asks why Brady and I never wanted children. I hone in on the word wanted. “We were never struck with baby fever, what can I say?” I could say the same about getting married, but I hold my tongue.
“Anita, maybe you two just don’t have the temperament,” she concludes. “I can’t deny that more grandchildren would be nice, but if it’s not for you, it’s not for you.”
Brady and I haven’t decided anything with finality; we sometimes point out hapa kids who genetically could be ours. The perfect mix of Japanese and Black Irish Portuguese looks. A fuzzy duckling tentatively comes up to Mom to snatch a morsel, then wags its tail and propels itself closer to its watching mother.
Later Mom is showing me how to cut squares for her quilt, using the special angled scissors. I tell her about the projects Brady and I have completed for our industrial design firm - the inexpensive computer for kids in Guatemala, a new kind of respirator that is gaining popularity in inner city emergency rooms, and a recycled sewing machine part for the women’s collectives in Kerala villages.
“I’ll bet you reach so many people that way. I had no idea.”
I could get mad that she never listened before when I told her about my work. Pop used to ask all kinds of engineering questions, interested in the technological aspects. He would always beam proudly when I explained things that he thought only Brady would know.
“I never thought of it this way, but these things are like your children. They go out into the world and have their own adventures.” She speaks calmly as she matches fabric edges and cuts precisely. I try to copy her, make myself slow down. She asks about the sewing machine part, and I show her on her machine what we did.
After all the calico fabric pieces are cut, I go to the bathroom and stare in the mirror, absently washing my hands. When I replace the bar of rose-scented soap, I see she’s using my first ashtray from kindergarten as the dish. It is lumpy and green and pink, shaped roughly like a leaf. There’s a red blotch that I’d meant to be a ladybug. I put the soap dish back reverently, and wipe away the tears making their way down my right cheek.
Mom and I are people-watching before the Japanese movie starts at the film festival. Mari was supposed to meet us here, but she got caught up at work. Plus she doesn’t like subtitles, prefers American thrillers that she can go to with her teenage sons. The young man down our row has long antennae, twitching as he dozes before the movie about Hokkaido begins. Maybe he’s related to Gregor Samsa, caught mid-metamorphosis. The feelers rise from a freshly mown buzz cut, like Brady wore throughout the muggy summers of his adolescence. I’ve seen the sullen pictures. How much daily maintenance does it take Bug Man to wrap those long hair stalks in colored wires? Does he wax them? He has Clark Kent glasses and a goatee, the cool geek look.
“Check out the feet,” Mom whispers. She’s noticed that he’s slipped off his shoes, still a good Japanese boy, resting one stocking foot on his Fila flip flops and the other on his knee.
Further down our row, an older white woman eats a cheeseburger while her miniature border collie watches the screen intently. You never know when celluloid sheep will need to be herded. The woman does not seem blind, so perhaps the dog is there for translation, although I’m unaware of any dog parts in the film. With x-ray vision I see that the dog is sitting on the large wallet, wherein lies a neatly folded psychiatrist’s note, declaring Rex to be the prescription for some rare anxiety disorder.
The filmmaker from Tokyo comes out. He is lean and smooth like a garter snake, and he answers the film festival manager’s questions with ease. Even though I can no longer understand Japanese, I enjoy the neat shape and rhythm of it, and the soft staccato of his head nods. The woman who quietly echoes the questions in Japanese and puts the director’s words into English looks like she works in a bank. She has a patience to her. Mom just nods along with big eyes, discerning everything the filmmaker says, just like she follows the thread of conversation with her own mother.
The film concerns people left behind: a piano tuner without his wife, a puppeteer’s assistant without his master, and a woman who is really a fox spirit. This last one wanders and causes mischief because her mate has turned to dust. Or rather, the statue that once held his spirit has crumbled. There’s also the shore longing for the sea.
After the movie, I drive us home to drink chamomile tea with Grandma’s honey. Mom is reading the paper, and shares the news that a monogamous prairie vole loses direction and the will to live when separated from its mate. High levels of loyalty brain chemicals equal depression when the bond is severed. I wonder about life without my man Brady. Calling him the day before, I found him feeling forlorn and far away. For now Brady and I wrestle and tumble in bed like there’s no tomorrow. Vital blood courses through both of us, as much as it does when we brainstorm on new design projects. We don’t want to get married and mess up a good thing. Pop slowly turned into a statue, pinned to his recliner by the increasing volume of fear doled out by Fox News. I’m glad he went before Mom.
On the last morning before I fly home, the whole household is out at the park. As they practice, they often gather a small crowd of cognoscenti since the documentary came out. Today Flory is leading and her sisters follow. I stand right behind Mom trying to sway as she does.
“It’s all about the knees. See?”
Flory turns around to watch us and I see her red silk hibiscus above her ear. It flashes like a signal for all the hula widows to turn and back away from me, leaving my mother in the lead position. They do a farewell hula for me. Waving arms wishing me safe travels.
I watch all of them equally, letting my eyes roam over Edie’s shining face and Carlotta’s perfectly poised fingers. But I keep returning to Mom, who looks like an excited little girl finally allowed to dance.