“I still don’t know why your mother chose that name for you,” Hattie had told the young boy. “It was an arrogant thing to do. In our culture, one doesn’t just pick a great name like that randomly and then place it on a child.” Hattie knew: words have power in the Hawaiian language, and personal names can evoke history and ancestral ties. Hattieʻs Passing is the next chapter to The Naming, published last semester at Pūpū A ʻO ʻEwa.
Meet the author, Umialiloa Harding
I was born on September 14, 1965, on the island of Maui during one of the worst tropical storms to ever hit the Hawaiian archipelago. In the pitch hours of early morning, my mother struggled with the long and difficult labor of my birth as the raging tempest unleashed its fury. Slanting sheets of rain pounded against the hospital windows, forming spectral hands of water that clawed desperately to get in. A howl of pain accompanied my entry into this life while outside in the darkness that precedes the dawn, the wind howled back.
The daunting prophesy of my name, Umialiloa, that was foretold by my great aunt Hattie was dormant during my early youth. I was raised in a protective cocoon of love heaped upon me by my loving mother, Tahiti, and her beloved Hattie. Tahiti had with much diligence managed to successfully rear her infant son beyond that critical first year. But the protective nurturing of her child created a barrier between the women and Tahiti’s haole husband, who refused to acknowledge what he called the “radical superstitions of a senile old woman.” My father’s paternal bond to his family, as well as his patience, quickly faded, giving way to infidelity, and by the time I was 6, he left my mother to be with another woman.
Still, I remember those early years fondly. Much of my childhood was spent at the side of the old woman, who, throughout those tender years, enthralled me with the lore of old Hawai`i and tales of the sea. Hattie loved the sea, and I came to love it, too. Its salty fragrance mingled with the scent of plumeria blossoms reminds me to this day of my great aunt, that mystic who first introduced me to the reality of things that go beyond normal understanding.
“Come and sit, ” she would say. “Let us give thanks to those who watch over us, na aumakua mai ka la hiki a ka la kau, the ancestral gods from the morning until night.” Her prayer would blend with the soothing sound of the ocean. Her songs cradled me, her chants traveling over the waves, calling to those who would give aid when the time was at hand. Today, 43 years later, I can still see the smile on Hattie’s face in the dwindling light of the setting sun as the great shark would appear in the shallow and allow the old woman to rub its back. Thus were the summers of my youth spent in joy and wonder.
How beautifully the pieces fit. Looking back on it all, my biological father cannot be blamed for his adulteries and other shortcomings. He had simply played his brief role in the grand design. The void formed by his departure was a necessary circumstance. It created a place that would be filled later by the first of my great teachers, Kamohoali’i, a fierce, flaming ehu-haired, freckled giant who carried the name of the shark god.
Hattie had raised my mother when she was a little girl and then she raised me while Tahiti worked hard to provide. It was a devastating blow to the both of us, but more so for my mother, when the old woman passed away when I was just 12. Tahiti mourned the loss of Hattie, and it seemed that we were now alone in the world. The old luau table in the backyard was once a favorite place to sit and enjoy the evening trades. But that peace was gone. There were only the two of us now. Tahiti and I would sit, sometimes without saying a word, each of us lost in our thoughts. I worried for my mother while she stared off into the distance.
One evening soon after Hattie’s passing, Tahiti looked at me. “There is a murmuring on the wind,” she said.
“What do you mean, mom?” I looked around us as darkness grew from the day’s waning light.
Instead of answering me, she got up and walked into the house. I followed her, and we shared a quiet dinner. It was cold that night, unusual for the west side of the island. I curled myself up in an old quilt that Hattie had made to keep the chill of the night away as I entered the realm of sleep.
That night I dreamed of a haggard wanderer walking along the sun baked, red dirt of rugged coastline. I could hear the ocean somewhere nearby. The man came upon a break in the line of keawe trees onto a path leading into a shaded grove near the water’s edge.
As he rounded a bend in the trail, he appeared to spot something. There, sitting in the shallowest part of the tide, directly in front of him, stood a huge pōhaku kuʻi ʻai, a stone poi pounder. The man seemed surprised. The stone implement was perfectly carved. Surely a beautiful object such as this must be worth something to someone. His pulse began to race as he slowly approached the pohaku, a part of him expecting it to disappear like some sort of mirage when he got close enough. But instead of vanishing, it turned into a large shark’s fin. The duality of the thing was both unexpected and overwhelming. When viewed head on, the object looked like a poi pounder, but when looked at from its side, it took the shape of an enormous shark’s dorsal fin.
As the man gazed bewilderedly at what he had found, an odd feeling of sudden vulnerability caused him to look back to retrace his steps. Back up the path from which he came was a set of huge hoof prints leading from the water to the very top of the trail that simply disappeared.
Whatever made these prints was huge, he thought. Each impression was much larger than his hand and sunk about three or four inches into the hard-packed earth. Suddenly an ocean breeze blew through the leaves of the trees highest branches, producing a soft, almost hypnotic whisper. A voice on the wind that hissed:
“Pickssssssss it up, or casssssst it asssssssside….”
I jumped awake to find myself shivering. What did the dream mean? Who was the stranger, and what was the voice I could still hear? Did Tahiti’s words somehow cause me to dream about the wind and voices? As I forced myself to be calm and lie still in the darkness, I stared out the window at the approaching dawn and put words to what I felt in the pit of my stomach: Something big is coming. I wrapped Hattie’s quilt protectively around me and waited for the light of day.
Credits: feature photo by Ray Jerome Baker, published in Hawaiian Yesterdays (1982)