A Hawaiian Quilt of Memory: A Tribute

Her death was unexpected.

At eighty-four, though somewhat stooped from the hump of her back and moving more slowly than in years previous, my father’s older sister was still sharp, spritely, and feisty as ever. Two weeks ago, a fall shattered her leg and landed her in the hospital, where she contracted pneumonia and died just a few days later.

When the news reached me, I was attending a black-tie Oscar party at the elegant Halekulani hotel in Waikiki, an annual fundraiser for the Hawaii International Film Festival (HIFF) of which my partner of 24 years is the executive director. Near the outset of the evening, I reached into my tuxedo pocket for my phone, wanting to snap a photo of the ballroom with the dinner tables gorgeously decorated and an elegant, well-heeled crowd milling about. Glancing down at my phone, I noticed the large number of emails on my ‘family account’. Curious, I tapped on the Inbox to open and thus received the news of my aunt Ida’s passing, a wave of sadness suddenly crashing into my heart.

The serendipity of the moment was striking, because the last time I saw her was six months ago at that very hotel. She had come to O’ahu for a Punahou reunion (she graduated from the exclusive, private high school in Honolulu in 1949) and learning that I lived just over the hill, rang me up in the hopes we could meet somewhere. I was thrilled at the prospect of seeing my dear aunt, so on Sunday I drove from our house in windward Kailua and picked her up at the Mormon church on Beretania in Honolulu. She confided to me that she didn’t want to attend church service, having not stepped foot in a church since her excommunication a few years earlier. I had no desire to be in a Mormon church, either, so I gladly whisked her downtown to the lovely Halekulani hotel so we could have a comfortable reunion and catch up after too many years.

Terrace at Halekulani

Terrace at Halekulani

”Thank you for bringing me here,” she said, clutching my arm as we walked slowly through the tastefully understated lobby and garden, towards the sea front restaurant, House Without A Key. “This is my favorite place in Hawaii.”

When my father’s family first moved from Utah to Hawaii in the late forties, only three hotels stood on Waikiki Beach: the Royal Hawaiian, the Moana Surfrider, and the Halekulani, which in those days was a cluster of well-appointed bungalows among the palm trees. Seated in a comfortable chair in the shade, Auntie told me how much it meant to her that Halekulani, when Waikiki transformed into a tangle of high rises, rather than demolishing the old stone building at the heart of the old hotel, had simply constructed its new towers around the gracious structure, thus forming a central courtyard with a nostalgic sense of Hawaii’s past.

“Only a Japanese company would do such a thing,” she said, “preserving the historical beauty and heritage. I’ve always loved this hotel for that. I love coming here… it’s so beautiful, and everything is always just perfect.”

Indeed, the 5-star Halekulani is arguably Hawaii’s finest hotel, deservedly famous for its understated elegance, superb service and unmatched hospitality.

IdaAs we sat outdoors in the warm summer breeze, watching the turquoise waves, my aunt sipped a guava juice, and repeatedly reached out to squeeze my hand across the table. Around her neck she wore a lei of polished ebony kukui nuts, and like my Grandmother Smith (her mother) who loved them also, this is how I will always picture her in memory. My aunt seemed frail to me, though her facial skin was strikingly beautiful for its age and her eyes shone bright; her mind was keenly sharp, and despite her gait being slow, she impressed me as being very full of life. We spoke of many things at our lovely lunch, from stories of our respective journeys to the deeper meaning of life and the soul’s journey, all while enjoying the tropical beauty of the surroundings, watching and listening to the miniature zebra doves as they coo coo coo’d near our feet, gazing out at the rolling surf. Mostly we delighted in the company of each other.

My father’s family is directly descended from Hyrum Smith, brother of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church, the ‘Latter Day Saints’. My paternal grandfather was the Patriarch of the Church, a position that no longer exists but was roughly equivalent to the Church President. Given that my parents divorced when I was five years old and I grew up with mother, I was never a part of the LDS scene, and my father left the Church many years later on his own spiritual journey. The rest of his family—siblings, their spouses, children, cousins, etc.—remains fiercely dedicated to the faith and to their proud sense of founder’s lineage, and my relationship with them has been distant.

Listening to her views on reincarnation—heretical in the Mormon creed—I couldn’t help but be impressed at how my aunt’s worldview and beliefs had expanded in the past years.

Auntie shared her deep sadness for what had transpired in recent years with the family at large as a result of her decision to break with the mainstream Latter Day Saints. Ida’s open embrace of the ‘Marvelous Work and Wonder’, an upstart Mormon-based faith, founded by a ‘new prophet’ who professes to be the reincarnation of Hyrum Smith (Joseph’s brother) and who claims to have translated the secret, ‘sealed portion’ of the Book of Mormon—sent a shockwave through her family, igniting a bitter family feud and a lawsuit.

“I’m an outcast now,” she shrugged, speaking of the family at large. “It hurts, but I accept it.”

She did not paint herself to be without fault in the situation or how the conflict of faith had unfolded amongst her siblings, and I caught a few notes of wistfulness in her telling of the tale. Yet despite her sadness on the family circumstance, she seemed mostly content and at peace, someone who has found their path and a certain freedom in it.

“There are some dangerously closed minds in our family,” she sighed. “It worries me.”

With a smile, I gently pointed out to her that she had not always been the most open minded person herself, and she flashed me a grin in return and squeezed my hand once more. “That is true, my dear boy.”

Looking at me earnestly, as if peering into my heart and soul, she said, “I think you’re the only one in the family who ‘gets it’.”

When we parted that sunny afternoon in Hawaii, I wondered if I would actually see my aunt again in this lifetime. As it turns out, I did not.

Receiving the news of her passing, I stepped from the buzzing ballroom and the Oscar party to phone my father, to reach out and say how sorry I was for his and our collective loss. As we spoke, I walked across the green lawn towards the great kiawe tree that presides over the oceanfront side of the hotel, just a few steps from where I had last been with Ida.

A few days later, through the executor of her estate—the controversial ‘new prophet’ despised by so many of my father’s family—I learned that in her Last Will and Testament my aunt had criticized her family at large for their rejection of her, as well as for their treatment of me over the years. She also placed me squarely at the center of presiding over her household when the residence was opened to the family, allowing them to collect any of her possessions they might desire.

Oh, the drama and petty jealousies that ensued—the black sheep of the family suddenly amid the flock as Ida’s chosen one. What a strange and unexpected twist of fate… for everyone.

So it was that I found myself hurtling across the Pacific from balmy Hawaii to frozen Utah, cursing that all my warm clothes for winter were stashed in California (who needs winter clothes in paradise?), and wondering at this unforeseen wrinkle of mystery. Amid the hubbub, my regular post of the Soul Artist Journal would have to wait a week.

As my red-eye flight to Salt Lake City touched down, I gazed out at the frozen landscape and mountains covered in white snow, my body already feeling contracted and cold. I drove to Orem in a rental car, the heated driver’s seat blazing beneath my chilled bum, watching the charcoal clouds of a snowstorm looming in my rear view mirror as it chased me south.

A spinster who never married, my aunt dwelt in the same small condominium for 34 years and, from what I could discern as I looked around, never discarded a single thing. I met briefly with her executor, the controversial ‘new prophet’—or false prophet, depending on one’s belief system—who welcomed me warmly. I then spent most of the day alone, sorting through drawers, boxes, cupboards, and closets, feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume, clutter, and dust. Clearly, my aunt had surrendered dusting many years ago, and it lay thickly victorious on shelves and objects in their long held positions.

Ida lived simply and frugally, surrounded by an odd collection of little knick knacks that held a sense of meaning to her but little monetary value. In the preceding week, amidst the blizzard of family emails regarding my arrival to oversee the open house, some of my cousins had reached out to me with specific requests for things they wished to have. Among these, I was tasked with gathering up the photos, letters, and items of historical relevance that my ‘genealogy cousin’, the family historian, wanted for her ongoing project of digitizing the family’s history, and it was with an eye towards that request that I spent most of the first day, setting things aside for her mother (who lives nearby) to come and collect.

There was one thing that I had quietly hoped to locate for myself: my paternal grandmother, in her long years of dwelling in Mānoa Valley on O’ahu, had crafted each of her seven children a Hawaiian-style quilt. It is a very special art form that is cherished throughout the islands, a style that uses large, radially symmetric appliqué patterns, with motifs that emphasize botanical designs in bold colors (usually on a white background). The patterned format is said to derive from an indigenous art of making textiles from kappa—the inner bark of local trees—beaten, felted, and dyed into geometric patterns. Quilting with fabric in Hawaii is thought to have begun in the 1800’s with the arrival of missionaries, and a uniquely Hawaiian style subsequently emerged.

Living in the islands, I have long admired these lovely quilts, though most of the ones for sale in tourist shops are commercially mass-produced in the Phillipines or China. The ‘real’ ones, hand stitched, are both rare and costly. When I asked my father about the whereabouts of the one that Grandmother Smith made for him, I learned that it had unfortunately disappeared, most likely in his second divorce. I wondered if Ida’s might still be in her apartment. If I could locate it, the quilt would be a lovely family heirloom to cherish at my home in Hawaii.

kukuilei

Kukui nut leis

Going through her things that first day, I selected a few little items that appealed to me: a blue lapis ‘egg’, a small handmade sea green ceramic dish, a vintage ivory Hawaiian ‘pikake’ lei necklace, a couple of 1940’s hand-embroidered linen tablecloths and matching napkins, a small Turkish area rug, a very old hand drawn postcard of Piccadilly Circus in London in an antique frame, two of her polished kukui nut leis, and the bronze bells on an old braided cord she kept on the inside doorknob of her front door, which have a wonderful ‘voice’. Mind you, I am generally reluctant about adding ‘stuff’ to my household; I have an aversion to clutter, and given that the ‘painted gypsy wagon’ is always rolling on to some new destination, I know I’ll simply have to end up packing whatever I accumulate and move it again. Yet I do appreciate artisan crafts and objects, and each of these things spoke to me in some way, so I decided to keep them as mementos of dear Ida.

After a long day of going through her ‘stuff’ and the storage unit downstairs (stacked with boxes of files and miscellaneous), my eyes, nose and lungs irritated by the thick dust, I was exhausted. I hadn’t found the Hawaiian quilt, but it really didn’t matter. Admittedly, I felt somewhat reluctant to be supervising the opening of her household to aunts, uncles and cousins, most of whom I have had only a tenuous relationship with over the years due to our extremely differing beliefs and ‘lifestyles’. Having escaped for the evening, I inhaled a deep breath and hoped for the best.

Only a few family members actually arrived the next day for the open house, most having decided that there would be nothing in frugal Ida’s small, cluttered condo they wanted, and I was able to visit pleasantly with a couple of my cousins whom I had not seen in fifteen years or more. The day proved unexpectedly pleasant, unfolding much better than I could have hoped… restitching some loose threads of connection from childhood and finding they still held true.

Islandquilt

Grandmother’s Hawaiian quilt

It was my cousin Andrea who found the heirloom quilt in an unassuming box at the back of the guest room closet—the one box amid a dozen others containing nutritional supplements that I hadn’t opened on the previous day. Professionally cleaned, the royal blue and white quilt was wrapped in plastic on a hanger and neatly folded. I had imagined it would be smaller than its actual queen size. That the designs are white upon a blue background (rather than the other way around) is unusual. Its condition is immaculate, especially given its age, and I was thrilled by the discovery. I will cherish the handmade blanket for years to come as a memento of Grandmother Smith, Aunt Ida, and a beautiful Hawaiian tradition.

As an adoptee, I have wrestled with the concept of ‘family’ for much of my adult life. I don’t share a bloodline or genealogy with the Smiths, and I find the Mormon faith to be narrow and constricting. As with most religion, it is a belief system more about containment than expansion—whereas the soul’s mandate is always to grow—and advocates a denial of the body and nature, as well as notions of ‘sin’ that I don’t believe in. Indeed, much of my work and writing on the soul and the Sacred Masculine is about moving away from a patriarchal god, the Old Man In The Sky, and widening the lens to include the Divine Feminine and Nature.

Turning the coin over, I realize that most of my cousins are surely equally puzzled by my belief system, which must seem as odd to them as theirs does to me.

Yet ultimately, whomever our family, our human journey is much the same, progressing from innocent babies to (hopefully) competent adults who are seeking the deeper truths and meaning of our existence, and (hopefully) endeavoring to offer something of value to our community. We view the world differently, yes, but in matters of the heart we are equals, for we all love… and lose.

“Consider yourself hugged,” Aunt Ida used to say.

Bless you, auntie. I send you love wherever you are, and I celebrate your bold, individual spirit that chose to follow its own path of truth and dared to step outside the box that held you for a lifetime. May we all find the courage to do the same and live on our own terms, heeding the call of the soul. I will miss you, dear one. Your string of bronze bells now chimes each time I open or close my own front door, and I will wear your kukui nut lei when I go out to events in Hawaii, I’ll always think of you when I am fortunate enough to be at Halekulani, “the heavenly house,” in Waikiki, and I will dream beneath the Hawaiian quilt… heart and breath expansive with a sense of goodness.

Aloha wau ‘ia ‘oe. I love you.

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