The WRite Life: More than a summer vacation.
I passed by a Hawaiian woman selling leis on a sea rock wall by the road while walking to the farmers' market to buy fruit and orchids. I looked at her and her leis but avoided eye-contact, avoided being lured in to purchase something I wasn’t sure I had the money for. I was staying a couple of months in Kona on the Big Island. My mother and my sister were on their way over from the mainland to vacation.
With a white pineapple, strawberry papayas, and purple orchids in my arms and money still in my hand, I stopped to look at the leis. Needle and thread in one hand, holding a plumeria flower in the other, she moved the needle through its heart. She didn’t look up until the flower was pierced, “Aloha,” she said. At once I was drawn to her eyes, dark brown with whites that were beige, no longer did I feel that she was a vender that only wanted my money. Her hello came as a sincere greeting.
“How much are your leis?” I asked.
“The plain ones are three and these ones are five,” she said pointing at the ones that had folded leaves in-between the flowers.
I had nine dollars.
“Is it a special occasion?” she asked.
“Yeah, my mother and my little sister are flying in today.”
“So yes, that is very special,” she told me as she continued to thread flowers. “You live her in Kona?”
Blonde haired and blue eyed, I was flattered that she thought I had the aura of an islander. I told her no, but that I love the Big Island and try to visit every year.
“I’m going to be packing up pretty soon,” she said. “I’m flying over to Oahu in a few hours. My cousin’s girl was killed in a car accident a couple of days ago. I just need to be there. Not that I can really do anything, but just be there.” Her eyes swelled with tears.
I looked at her, directly at her, not knowing what to say, to do, “I’m sorry.”
“Yes, life…. All we can do is try and be there for each other. Cars, they are so dangerous. But I am so happy your family is coming to see you. You are excited about them coming.”
I told her that I was, and I confessed that I had been lonely. “Are you out here everyday?”
“Almost everyday. I get up at four to go collect my flowers. Get here by 6:30. A lot of flights leave early, and people like to wear leis back to the mainland.”
“You pick them by hand?” I imagined how time consuming this would be.
“I don’t pick them. I just use the ones that have fallen, dead, but still pretty. Then I fix breakfast, feed my dogs. And come down to this wall to begin stringing.”
“Pretty impressive,” I said. I wasn’t sure what I was referring too, the fact that she woke so early, the fact that she waits until the flower is finished with its life, the fact that a person could make a living off of making leis for tourists.
“Not really,” she answered, smiling.
“I’ll take this one and this one.”
She took them and placed them into a plastic bag, as I set my money down, she took another
five dollar lei and put it into the bag.
“It is a special occasion, you need a lei too.”
“Thank-you,” I told her, wanting to have full eye contact, she not giving it to me.
A shift in perspective.
I cried a few tears, as I walked back. Her warmth and her generosity was painfully real. I felt ashamed of my original feelings. In the condo, I pulled out the leis to look at them, smell them. There were four. She gave me one to many. Maybe I should take one back. She may be able to sell it. I ran back with the extra lei. But for some reason it was hard for me. I needed to be alone…the intimacy was almost too great.
“You gave me one too many. There are only three of us!”
“You keep it,” she said, not looking up.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, you are special, keep it.”
Walking back I wondered if I was special, not really feeling it, hoping she saw something in me that I couldn’t feel. I thought she was special. I thought our exchange meaningful — why? Because life happens in the moments of reaching out and connecting, of throwing away our prejudices and ideals, of giving and receiving. I saw her on the same wall the next summer. I was in Kona with my mom, sisters and brothers, and, friends. It was the first day of our vacation, and I told myself that I would stop and say hello the next time I saw her. We were vacationing for ten whole days; there’d be time.
I have never seen her again.