I have lived in the white, frail house at the edge of Kuli’ou’ou for more than six summers. The house’s sun-worn wood body remains cracked and dry like the taro plants we pulled from the front yard two weeks ago.
I live here with Tutu, my daughter Julie, and a cat named Jasper. People say that I came here as a single mother for convenience. Really, I came here to learn what degree my genes carry the coded message of madness.
One December morning, a long time ago, in my East Village apartment in New York, I swallowed a vial of my roommate’s blue, oval valiums. I had just turned in a paper on the lotus sutra in contemporary design for my graduate art history class.
Dressed in fire engine red long johns that I hadn’t washed all semester, I crawled into bed for my long winter’s nap. Only the glaring ER lights and clear tubing that prodded my passages disturbed my slumber.
The psychiatrists play with words from the DMS III. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Depression. Panic disorder. Believe me, the possibilities are endless.
Sometimes I look in the mirror at my round face and dark eyes, wondering if I am the mad woman that everyone shuns. Medusa. Emily D and her attic. Sylvia Plath and her fatal gas oven. The old, eccentric biddy with 13 cats crowding her studio apartment. The welfare queen. The housewife having her 19th nervous breakdown. I imagine them all as cotton stuffed dolls in a coin-operated dryer, spinning around, their cries muted by thick glass. The professionals will quiet them with drugs, restraints, cognitive therapy.
I have lived in this house for six years. The neighbors still watch me carefully for signs of lolo mentality— excessive weeping, a harried response, a wart on my nose.
When I call my father he says, “Where are you?”
Mrs. Manu, an old family friend, brought over liliko’i and asked me if I took my medicine and saw the doctor. I can’t tell her that she is niele and would probably get lost in Chinatown, let alone Manhattan.
But they watch and wait. Will I crack again?
I patched the roof this year. I replaced the 20-year-old white ceramic sink in the kitchen. The one in the bathroom that we share looks like a dentist’s white ceramic spit bowl with rust oozing from its openings. I have no money to fix it so I just keep scrubbing Comet hopelessly into the brown spittle marks.
Every creak in this house sounds out the pulse of memory buried alive in the grey matter of our minds.
My daughter sits next to Tutu at the black lacquer table in the dining room. She has her father’s straight, pious nose. She never knew him and I’m not cruel enough to show her the pictures of us in love at the wrong time and in the wrong place. How do you tell a 6-year-old that her daddy has a wife and children in another part of the country?
Julie can add double figures in her mind. Her chestnut brows squeeze together in a Super Fly pose when she asks me how much it will cost to reconstruct Kalaniana’ole Highway. The other day she was shining the flashlight in my eyes to check for healthy pupils and any “sleepies” that might be stuck to the corners.
She knows too much, this child of mine. I am amazed as I watch her as she eats from her Mickey Mouse dishwasherproof plate. Silver-haired Tutu stands slowly from her aqua blue padded chair, which is surrounded by pieces of spaghetti noodles, lettuce dabbed with Thousand Island dressing and chocolate pudding cake. She grabs her cane and sets forth to watch white-spangled Vanna White turn the letter boxes on Wheel of Fortune. As she moves, a stream of flatulence follows her like a stream of fire crackers, as she walks the length of the table.
Julie, clamping her spoon like a 3-year-old, starts to writhe with laughter. Her cheeks turn pink like the strawberry ice cream that she is eating.
“Really, Jules, everyone farts,” I say.
But I smile because my daughter can laugh like a 6-year-old, thank God.
I take Tutu her ice water. She sits dignified in her floral print house coat with embroidered blue trim. She stares me down with ice blue eyes sunken in tiny flaps of skin.
“I don’t approve of using four-letter words like ‘F-A-R-T.’ I like to use words like ‘kukae’ and ‘shishi.’ And I would like less water and more ice in that glass please,” she says.
I go up to the kitchen that my friends and I painted sunflower yellow and follow her orders.
For the remainder of her life, I claim the posture of the indentured servant. I live in her home, bathe her, wash her night commode, serve her meals. I exchange this role for rooms in the old white house where I raise my daughter.
The house subdues me with its memories. My great-grandfather, a Portuguese pig farmer, killed himself in the attic where I sometimes go to sleep to avoid the summer termites that swarm and drop their paper wings. He used a hunting rifle. Tutu’s sister used a razor to cut out the bloody squares of blue carpet.
Some men in the family called him courageous to perform such an act because he was tired of living.
“It’s very Hemingway,” my cousin explained to me once.
But a woman wouldn’t be called courageous if she did that. They would call her crazy, selfish, a quitter. But the family still tries to forget it. Each generation washes the awful stain away. But then I halted progress when the ambulance pulled into NYU medical center and the EMT handed the admissions clerk my identification.
Admitted as a psychiatric patient, the curse began again.
I have dreamt of the old one. He poses tan with white hair in front of an old-fashioned telescope. He smiles at me. I tell him that I spent a week in the hospital long ago and I now understand madness. It has to do with nerve synapses, tricyclic antidepressants and vitamin B. He laughs and tells me not to be afraid. His laugh has volume and fills the room. His eyes cut through me like brown porcelain balls.
My neighbor, Jane, believes in spirits. When her Okinawan grandmother died, she lit incense and suddenly the other end of the black stick began to curl with smoke as well.
That night as she crawled beneath her blue-stitched comforter the light switched back on. Grandma crossed over.
Jane babysat Julie last year and slept on the hikie’e. She woke up at 2 a.m. and saw a white-haired man, lithe and tan, cross the living room and disappear. Jane swears that just before daybreak she felt a strong arm hold her down and grab her left tit. She shrieked, but no one woke up.
A Catholic priest blessed this house when the old man died. But his angry spirit finds no rest.
During Bon season I set up an ancestral altar. I burn red candles from the Maunakea Street gift store, and incense I got at Longs. I put two anpan and half a glass of Cuervo Gold on the attic table. Then I told him to leave me alone. I have a child and a nagging old woman to take care of and I’m tired. “I don’t have the luxury of checking out, old man,” I say. “Go bother the cousins.”
The wheel of the year grinds slowly to summer. We fish the ripe mangos from the trees with long catchers. I peel them at the sink and Julie grabs one, sucking the juicy orange flesh that stains her mouth and cheeks. Lately, I fold origami. Every day, I take squares of the gold foil, creasing, folding and turning until the cranes emerge. The birds, so delicate, so beautiful, join a flock on the koa coffee table in the living room. I might just fold a thousand. Not to get married, as is the custom. I’ll matte and frame them in flight from the darkness, the winter and my great-grandfather’s eyes.
© Copyright 1996 Carrie O’Connor