Just visiting

I thought I understood what the word ‘ohana meant until this week.

My husband and I went to the Mokihana Festival event, “Under the Palms at Maka‘iwa,” at Resort Quest on Tuesday. I’d spoken to Malie Foundation’s founder Nathan Kalama about the festival last week and knew I wanted to attend some part of this week-long celebration of Hawaiian culture. I confess, I chose Tuesday’s show because it was close to my house — and it being a work night I was tired.

I could not have chosen a better night to go. After seven years of living here I thought I knew what ‘ohana meant — like “aloha” it’s a word I hear many times daily.

My husband Wes and I sat at the rear of the room at an empty table. From our vantage point near the door, we watched family after family glide into the tent in their brightest aloha wear — all the women and girls wearing lei and fist-sized bunches of flowers in their hair. Hugging bodies and joyful greetings swarmed us. We felt like voyeurs, but not unwelcome ones.

My husband and I are both from wandering clans, neither having grown up around extended family — no aunties, uncles or cousins; no grandmothers, no grandfathers. Wes’ parents immigrated to California from Brazil in the 1960s for political reasons. He only knew his extended family in snippets of month-long visits. As for my family, our wanderlust is connected to the sea. My great grandfather on my dad’s side was a sailor and when his wife died during childbirth in England, he gave his children to an orphanage and disappeared. My grandfather immigrated to North America and wound up in Iowa where my dad was born. When my dad was 17 years old he headed for the coast to join the Navy. Meanwhile, my mother is from a family of ship builders in Nova Scotia, Canada. She has always felt a deep connection to the sea. So when my dad showed up in Halifax on a Navy ship, she pretty much married him on sight — their courtship consisting of one date to a ship party and another to Peggy’s Cove lighthouse. “Till death do us part,” and they did.

As Wes and I sat there listening to family after family take the stage to make music together and to perform hula, we said very little to each other. We were like sponges soaking up the aloha. Until that night I don’t think I fully understood the word “aloha.” Two Hawaiian words I hear more then any others — aloha and ‘ohana — and I didn’t “get” either one. The family reunion atmosphere we’d happened upon turned into an education on what these two words are on an experiential level.

We ran into Shiloh Pa, whom Wes has worked with in construction. He shared how he’d won awards at the Composers Contest the night before and that he’d be performing that night — “Be Like You,” was a song he’d written for his father. I remember reading Sam Pa’s obituary in July and marveling at the number of his descendants — 42 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren. Wes had often praised Shiloh as a fine and kind man. So while reading the obituary I thought how fortunate for the world that Sam Pa had been the vehicle for all these compassionate people. I was filled with a mixture of awe and envy. A tiny fissure formed in that moment — I considered how little I knew about my own extended family.

On Tuesday that hairline fissure grew into a crack that allowed a stream of light to break through. I understood that I could never really comprehend ‘ohana, and surprisingly, as Wes and I stood in the dark parking lot after leaving the show, neither of us felt sad about it.

We ran into Billy, one of the Swain clan, who had performed that evening with his family. We stood between rows of cars telling Billy how honored we were to be there, that we’d observed something powerful and still couldn’t quite believe our good fortune for having stumbled upon it. He just laughed and told us that this night was indeed the heart of the Mokihana Festival — a backyard party Hawaiian style.

Then he asked how long we’d lived on Kaua‘i and I responded, “Only seven years.” He said, “Oh, that’s long enough, you’re kama‘aina.”

It was my turn to laugh. Having witnessed the ‘ohana and aloha we found under that tent, I realized that I could appreciate but never fully understand the roots that join the people of this island.

• Pam Woolway is the lifestyle writer at The Garden Island. Her column “Being there” appears every other week.

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