Never a July goes by when I don’t remember the birthday of Frances — Frances Nelson Frazier, that is — also known to her inner circle by the name she took from her maternal grandmother, Hali‘a, or “fond recollection.”
Frances was a strong and intelligent woman with clear vision and free in a certain way long before the movement for women’s equality came to the fore in the last decades of the 1990s. She lived just past her 100th birthday, continuing to be a community voice and state Hawaiian translator well into her 90s.
She was born on July 6, 1914, to the Honolulu Harbormaster Capt. Richard Nelson, a transplanted New Englander and master mariner, and his part-Hawaiian wife Ellen Eva Todd, and lived fully, as told in her memoir, “Hali‘a of Hawai‘i, A Legacy of Language,” published in 2010 concurrently by AuthorHouse Books and, in Hawai‘i, under the imprint of Kaua‘i’s TropicBird Press, my publishing entity.
Many remembered — and still remember — Frances’ “sassy” letters to the editor printed in this same newspaper.
This week we light a candle for Frances, known first as a writer of history and translator, then as a friend and guide — indeed, my heroine and role model.
We included a basic genealogy that takes us back to Keokilele (featured in Hank Sobeleski’s “Island History” column June 20, 2021), the strong woman who was deserted by her ship-captain husband in Wai‘oli after producing 10 live children by him. Keokilele is said to have written a letter that helped grant her a divorce. After that, she went on to marry a “Mr. Molina,” live in the Hule‘ia district and produce 10 more children that forged a strong Kaua‘i family line.
It wasn’t until much later that she learned that one of Keokilele’s first Coggeshall daughters, Sarah, had left Kaua‘i after the publicized desertion and been adopted by the town surveyor Thomas Cook in Hilo. The corollary to this was that she also learned that she had many Hawaiian-Filipino relatives, descendants of Keokilele’s second marriage and second brood living on Kaua‘i. These she desired to meet, and did.
In a recent downsizing myself, I donated the backstory of the book “Hali‘a” (pre-publication drafts and correspondence, and archival photographs obtained from the U.S. Naval Archives and other sources, to the Kaua‘i Historical Society to add to the Frances N. Frazier documents already within the KHS’ archival collection). What that storage tub of paper led to was the actual book with all the details and anecdotes that stretch from Chinaman’s Hat through London, Venice, along the Orient Express through India to Dacca, and back to Hawai‘i. And let’s not forget the first Pan-American clipper ship flights to Tahiti and back, and then Moloka‘i times and arrival on Kaua‘i. Beyond visiting famed horse shows and tiger sanctuaries, beyond learning to live in a Muslim society, beyond absorbing Hawaiian language at the Bishop Museum while typing dictionary entries for Mary Kawena Pukui, there are many lessons that can be learned from Frances’ tale and applied in the present.
Dawn Fraser Kawahara, resident author and poet, has focused her support of the arts and culture within the Kaua‘i community since the early 1980s.