Reprinted with Permission (2007)
My friend who runs a restaurant in Mänoa came back from Laos where he served for a month as a Buddhist priest. Billy did this after his uncle, head of their family, died. Wearing a yellow robe, his hair shaved, he had to stand on a road near the town market place, waiting silently for people who might place some kind of food into his wooden bowl. He showed me a photo of himself doing this. He laughed. “And food is my life!”
Take what is given with thanks.
But you can say, “Enough.”
You can swallow what you want
or digest at your own speed.
You can give it away.
You can just dump the whole mess.
You can shape it, play with it, shove it,
rework it, write it your way, make it memory.
Remember the operating word: begging.
Yes, you have desired it, wished for it.
No lying to yourself, you asked for it.
Leave it free for tomorrow
Waiting as it was from the beginning.
Whatever may be offered later
needs its own room to exist,
can’t be ignored or neglected.
It’s your bowl.
Just empty it today.
Editor’s note: The first time I learned about Marie Hara was when she passed away in August 2019. When then-Herald editor Karleen Chinen told me how she wrote for the Herald and Bamboo Ridge journal, I felt an instant connection to Hara. Months before, I had my own work published in one of Bamboo Ridge’s issues while working here at the Herald for about a year. Although she has passed, and I have never met Hara, she will always be a friend to me, and to all of us at The Hawai‘i Herald.
Jean Yamasaki Toyama
Reprinted with Permission (1998)
Born premature and weighing barely four pounds, I caused my family great concern. Believing me prone to early arrivals and departures, they listened to my every cough and wheeze with fearful worry. “Is she still breathing? Go look!”
It was thus that I was put into the care of my grandmother, the neighborhood healer. What she had done for others, she could certainly do for me.
The first order of business was my weight. Through a careful diet she saw to it that my mother produced enough milk and daily brought it to the hospital. “Drink up, Sachi. Nonde.” It is thanks to this care that even today I am in no danger of perishing from weightlessness.
If my mother were the first earth in which I grew, my grandmother was certainly the gardener of my new world. She nurtured and pruned me, pulled the weeds around me and protected me from the elements.
I remember her hands, her warm, healing hands. Each time I had an asthma attack she was there to silence the wheezing. A toothache? Palms on my cheeks. A cold? Pressure on my chest. She even cured my baldness — I was born without hair — by applying her spit on my pate everyday for one year.
I don’t know where her powers came from, but they were real.
On the left side of our house facing the mountains was a chicken coop. We all had one in those days. No one complained. The incubator for the chicks was underneath the house. Then houses were raised off the ground to allow the trade winds to flow all around and cool the inside.
One day I saw my grandmother in that fresh darkness sitting on an apple crate, her hands cupped around a small, yellow fluffy ball. “Poor thing, kawai so,” she whispered to it.
Taking notice of me she said, “It’s sick, Sachi, itai” and extended her cupped palms toward me. “Motsu? Come, take it.”
I stretched out my hands to clasp that quivering ball and recoiled, when I saw yellow oozing from between my grandmother’s fingers. “No, Bachan. Dirty!” I squirmed in the priggish tones of a child who had learned too well the lessons of hygiene. “Dooodoooo!”
“No, Sachi; it’s sick. Byoki.”
My grandmother hardly ever preached at me. After all, we barely spoke the same language. But I learned on that day that there are no absolute laws. The rules of cleanliness drilled in me with “Don’t touch! Dirty, dirty!” were now put into the perspective of other principles, those of healing and compassion.
Our neighbor, Mrs. Toyota and her husband, the Rico Milkman, had a bedroom window facing my grandmother’s. Every night we would exchange good-nights and waves before I fell asleep at my grandmother’s side. By that time my sister had been born, and she had come to occupy my crib. It was Mrs. Toyota who brought that couple to see my grandmother.
I remember this couple because they came for many months. That first evening the man wore a Japanese print shirt of kabe silk. I stared at the expectant eyes of the orange and blue fish swimming in a background of bright yellow. I saw rainbows in those eyes. The man’s shiny black hair slicked down with pomade came to a little tail in the back. The woman wore a dark dress with buttons that went from her neck to the hem. Remembering all the trouble I had with buttons I counted them in wonder.
They were Filipino; so I was more curious than usual. As they waited in the living room for my grandmother, I sprawled on the sofa and stared at them from all angles. “Hello. Me Sachi. Who you?”
They politely ignored me. Perhaps I seemed impertinent. Perhaps I was intruding. The lady fidgeted with her hair, pulling now and then at the ends just at the nape of her neck. Her hair was simply combed, limp and lifeless. She looked sad.
“Sachi can stay over there, if she’s quiet,” said my grandmother when she entered, pointing to the farthest corner of the room. Apparently, Mrs. Toyota had explained everything, because they said very little. Now that I think of it, they couldn’t have said very much since all three knew very little English. I listened; I didn’t need to understand.
“Onegaishimasu. Onegai. We try two years. Nothing happen. You help, okay?” said the man. He was sitting down on the floor like a Japanese, his feet crossed beneath him. He even bowed his head once in a while as he talked. His wife quietly sat down next to him on a cushion.
“Can do? Maybe? Maybe, no can do,” replied my grandmother in a mixture of pidgin and Japanese.
She then told the man in word and motion to sit on the sofa and the woman to lie on the thick blanket that she had laid out on the living room floor. The woman understood that she should remove her dress which she did, slowly undoing each button. She folded her dress and handed it to her husband. Then, she lay on her stomach.
In the meantime my grandmother prepared her healing instruments. One by one she took the transparent cups out of the khaki bag and placed them in a row next to the woman’s head. Then the bottle of alcohol, the candle and the matches. The towel lay in a basin of salt water.
I loved to watch my grandmother heal and was often tempted to leave my perch to participate. But her simple, “No!” was enough to keep me in my place. I was no fool.
My grandmother would place her hands on the wife’s back and wipe it with the towel, then she would look at its flesh as if she were measuring a piece of cloth to decide where to lay the pattern. The pale brown mole on her nose quivered ever so slightly, as she breathed through her stuffed sinuses. She placed the larger cups just to the side of the spine and the smaller ones along the edge of the curve of the woman’s back. Then, she took the cups off and placed them in a certain order assured that she could maintain the pattern.
Everything ready, she lit the candle. She poured just a little bit of alcohol in a cup, swirled it around and emptied it into another cup. She then wiped the edge of the first cup to make sure that the alcohol wouldn’t drip, applied some salt water to a spot on the lady’s back and lit the alcohol with the candle. An orange flame leaped out of the cup. The first time, the man gasped in surprise.
She immediately slapped the cup on the damp spot, and the flesh rushed in to fill the glass.
“No worry, no worry, I no hurt your wahine,” she said.
I moved closer. So did the man. His eyes got wide; his mouth opened. But he didn’t say a thing.
Slowly the dark skin in the cup turned slightly red. Our eyes fixed on the sight of flesh forced into a mound, flesh that became now only color, texture and shape.
In the meantime the healer lit another cup. Then another and another. Soon there were five cups on that back; each with a mound of rising flesh inside. The colors ranged from the shadowy red of Japanese prints to the dark blue of tattooed hands.
I waited for the part I liked best — the removal of the cups. Only the pressure of the index finger was needed to release the vacuum. As the air rushed into the cup, there would be the surprising sound of deep slurping, something I imagined like two giants kissing. Sometimes my grandmother let me participate in the healing. I’d place my finger next to hers and feel the whoosh of the escaping vacuum.
I would lie on the blanket next to the lady and listen to the ssmmack — ssmmack, ssmmack — ssmmack and fall asleep to that sound and wake up in the morning in my grandmother’s bed.
The couple came every day for some weeks and then every week for a while. As time passed the woman’s attire brightened along with her disposition. The dark brown of the first day changed to greens, yellows, even reds. She smiled more, spoke more. One dress in particular caught my fancy. It was bright yellow with two huge white pockets off on both sides in the front below her waist. During that treatment instead of watching the ballet of cups I played house with my doll in the woman’s pockets.
Not only did the woman’s clothing change, so did her hair. Now she wore it swept up, sometimes with a green barrette or a blue one depending on the color of her dress. On her last visit she wore one in rhinestone.
I became confused by the opposite appearance of the man. I never saw those rainbow fish again. In fact he came only in T-shirts and faded pants. His hair never shined like before.
It was only when I heard Mrs. Toyota talking with my grandmother that I thought I knew the meaning of it all.
“So … what about the husband?”
“He tired, real tired. Tsukareta,” my grandmother said lifting her eyebrows high.
I thought I knew the meaning of all this. Women need to be healed to be beautiful; and men wear out, when they are.
Even the word “baby” was no mystery to me. We had a baby; she was a sister.
But what does a child of 6 understand of the yearning of a woman for a child? How can a child know of the distress of a flat, empty belly?
Six months later “Fumie” was born.
I never really knew my grandmother then, but now as I try to remember I can imagine the two of us keeping company, not needing to talk much. The silence held us together, a strong vacuum keeping us close. Like her healing cups her love kept me snug.
I left my grandmother’s warm bed without regret, because my world too had grown beyond the neighborhood of those healing hands. At the end of our lane — how many times did I walk it, kicking up the dust, holding my grandmother’s hand? — was Elm Street, royal palms and all. They’re still there, those palms, but Rico Dairy isn’t. Ke‘eaumoku Street now runs over the old neighborhood. The asphalt has stopped the dust from flying. Tooting horns replace the sounds of chickens and the ssmmack of kissing giants.
Beyond that street, I have been told, lay watercress paddies and a water buffalo. These I never saw, since we didn’t venture much beyond Elm Street. And I certainly wasn’t allowed there alone.
Now time has forced me beyond those swaying fronds, beyond that dusty road without her, but that energy to heal springs from there reaching out with the warmth of a grandmother’s hand grasping securely the falling panties of a child, keeping her out of harm’s way.
Born in Honolulu with ties to Kaua‘i and the Big Island Jean Yamasaki Toyama is professor emerita of French at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. Her books include “Kelli’s Hanauma Friends,” “The Piano Tuner’s Wife,” “Prepositions” and “Wild Elephants.” Cades Award winner for emerging artist in 2018, she is one the renshi poets awarded the Ka Palapala Po‘okela excellence in literature, honorable mention, for “What We Must Remember” in 2019.