Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Found in the sand

At Turtle Bay on Oahu's North Shore, I print out the map to the grail--the birth certificates linking me to   Florence. We dash back to Honolulu with only four hours before our flight leaves for the mainland. I revisit my old stamping ground, the Department of Health Services, and find the same excruciating line.   At last I reach the window and present my docs. I tell her I only have a couple of hours before I get on the plane. "Fine. We'll mail this out to you in four to six weeks." She must have caught a glimpse of my crestfallen face, and said, "Well, maybe I can do this on my lunch hour." Whoever said civil servants are numb, doesn't know the staff at the Hawaii DHS. I bless her, and sit down to ponder why it's so important to have it in my hands while on the island.  I remember the two halves of my quest-- the cause, and where she lived.  I had hoped to find her apartment, and the same view, which was perhaps a fool's errand in the shifting landscape, but

The clerk shows up at the plastic window with a piece of green paper covered in a fountain pen scrawl with blots and crossings out.  I take it, almost not daring to read.

I. Disease or condition directly leading to death: Congestive heart failure. Antecedent causes: Fixed nodal tachycardia, aneurysm...  She was in the hospital five weeks before she died, aged 51. The certificate lists the Father and Mother as "Unknown." Name of husband or wife--blank. She really was alone, at least to the state. Her address was listed as Waikiki Tavern. This was becoming an even sadder story than I had imagined.

I dashed across the wide lawn to the State Library, to the librarian who had kindly helped me before.  "Have you heard of the Waikiki Tavern," I asked Mary Lou, a bit breathless. She was happy I'd found the certificate, but hadn't.  We started searching.  It turns out, it wasn't merely a saloon. It was an Inn, and the only place to buy a meal on Waikiki outside of the swank hotels. The Waikiki Tavern was a curiously designed hotel, restaurant, and lounge with 105 "rooms over" a drugstore, beauty salon, laundry, barbershop and Thayer Piano (advertising ukeleles for sale). The remodel of the Waikiki Inn in 1928 was in the "old Norman" style--I suppose a tip of the hat to the British protectorate some islanders may have still been nostalgic for. It turns out you could see Queen Kapiolani's sacred coconut grove from the lanai.

A bit of further research, aided by my brother, revealed that in the 30s and 40s the Waikiki Tavern was a mecca for California transplants, particularly of the surfing variety.  In the surfing annals, it is cited as an exciting, lively place to live. Where surfers came to share stories and dreams. I hope it was like that  for her. The WT was torn down in the 50s to open up the beachfront. We go to the site at the end of Kuhio Street. A lei-draped bronze of Duke Kahanamoku stands there with his board, framed by the descendants of the Queen's coconut grove. Behind his back, it looks almost exactly like the view from Florence's lanai.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Of diamond heads and ottoman silks

I wait for copies of the requisite birth certificates--mine and my dad's, and can think of no better place to be in a holding pattern than Diamond Head. Walking through a kilometer of sere landscape plus 216 steps through the tufa cone,  I arrive with a flood of other day trippers  to peer over the crater's edge at the remnants of the 1909-built Rutger's Fort. Far below, Waikiki tumbles at the turquoise water edge like so much volcanic spew. I recall walking feeling the still warm lava under my sneakers at Kilauea on the Big Island--and the rolling sensation of the land creating itself. Whether it's surfing the bone crunching 20-foot waves at Waimea, watching the earth open its fiery heart, or the calm lianas vines relentlessly claiming human habitations, Hawaii forces us to give up the illusion of control. Did Florence clamber up here for perspective on the ground changing beneath her? Was Oahu her blue haven?

Later, I visit another long-time single woman's Eden at the foot of Diamond Head-- Doris Duke's Shangri-La. One of the wealthiest women of her time, this heiress to the tobacco tycoon, James B. Duke, swept Islamic treasures from around the world into the walls, ceilings and floors of her Honolulu home. She was reclusive, eccentric and had exquisite design sensibilities. Fortunately for her, there weren't restrictions on exporting ancient art in the 1930s--and she collected 2,500 rare objects, many of which are now considered priceless--riad tile walls, a First century gold urn, Mughal dynasty carved doors. What she couldn't buy, she had made--by 400 Agra villagers*. Enhancements to Shangri La continued until Duke's passing. Her butler and friend reports that she worked long hours, rarely taking a day off, to maintain her treasures--even climbing a ladder to defend the filigree against salt-air corrosion with a toothbrush.


The people of Hawaii have a historic claim to the shoreline based on rock-solid laws. Through a land swap with the city,  Doris finagled the building of this private cove.

 Hawaii.  The perfect place to disappear.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

At death's door

Back on the trail, I finally reach the State Library where I hope to find some trace of my grandmother. The last I knew is that she was here in June of 1946, nine months after the war ended. I slide through microfilm death indexes- 1946, 1947, 1948, 1949--Jan., Feb., March, April, May, June.  Door, Alfred K.; Gonsalves, Jesus; Goo, Yee, Goodness, Fannie; Goto, Grey. Lots of Hamamotos. The rolls reveal Hawaii as melting pot (or racial cauldron).

Finally there she is- 4 lines:
 Reg. No. 1383.
Name: HAMILTON, Florence
Place: Honolulu
Date: June 3, 1949.

She did die here -- in black and white. This number will help me locate her death certificate. Meanwhile, I search the city and county directories for her, and come up with--nothing, except for confirmation of the Bishop Trust Company's hold on things.  How could there be no trace?  I'm told by the librarian, if she had been in the military she wouldn't be listed here. Was she?
She had been in London during the war, working for the government, making contacts. Maybe she joined up here after the war.

With file number 1383, I head for the State Department of Health. Everyone comes here for copies of birth, death, and marriage certificates. I wait, but the line barely moves. I have time to read all the postings.What to do in case of stroke. How to prevent diabetes. The changed laws on getting a first driver's license (must prove identity with birth certificate). Finally I reach the window and show my file number. The gentleman looks it up--finds a reference and asks me for proof that I'm related.  Hmmm. A new wrinkle, not mentioned on their website instructions. I must look a bit desperate as Jesse Koike writes his name on a post-it and suggests I mail in copies of my dad's birth certificate and mine to establish the blood linkage. Otherwise, I'm out of luck.

Empty handed, I visit the banyan, and think about trees walking, putting down roots in the most improbable ways.  Taffy strands pulled between dirt and sky, waterfalls of phloem, haven of Crusoe, and all castaways.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Oahu:The Sky is Falling

10 days in Oahu.  Not many I know choose it when they're island hopping or fanata-sizing about hiking through birdsong throbbing jungles or canoodling in turquoise waters among sea turtles and banana-colored fish.   And yet--here we are:trying not to think about dust-gray Pearl Harbor ships, faux luaus run by Mormons and weak mai-tais siphoned into Waikiki tourists.
I've come to find out what drew my paternal grandmother to Honolulu in 1946 and how she died in 1949, at 51. No death certificate. No family talk of her disappearance over the years. (As far as we know, she lived a solitary life after divorcing when my dad was a toddler.  He never could look at her disappearance squarely, preferring his memory of Central Park summers with her, and their single cruise to South America. ) And yet, she seems to have led her life filled with ambition and verve. Florence flew to London during WWII to work in the Office of War Information, as a civilian. She was a vivid writer, and had planned a round-the-world voyage to research a book. The day he died, my dad still had her ivory-scabbarded sword and Burmese ebony elephant in his t-shirt drawer, along with a few treasured photos and letters. This scant evidence of her existence, and her early death have remained a mystery all my life. My dad kept a photo inscribed, "To Jim, This is the view from my lanai. Love, Mom July 3, 1946." I've come to find that view.

As today is Veteran's Day, all state offices and buildings are shuttered. The quest will have to start tomorrow. Instead I head out for the Foster Botanic Gardens, a few blocks from our hotel. I stop for orchid leis in Chinatown (apparently the airlines have abandoned the lei-draping on arrival, probably along with the free meals and thin blankets) but I still want fragrant blossoms around my neck. Honolulu's Chinatown turns out to be pretty seedy--loads of homeless folks and shuttered cafes and saloons. A few produce stores and humbow shops have particular customers. Oddly, this is also the stomping grounds of fresh-faced Hawaii Pacific students, who don't seem to mind stepping around the sidewalk-sleeping masses. The lei shops line Maunakea street--scent of plumeria and tuberoses mix with hum bao steam and clorox. It's all a bit overpowering so early in the day, so I press on to the gardens.
What doesn't kill you...

A fantastic temple fronts the botanic gardens. Incense and a perpetual flame coax me inside Yuan Kin for a brief moment, then I'm off to the temple of trees.

This critter is fondly called the "sausage tree." 
Wonder if it's filled with Spam 
(the meat of choice 
in the islands--spamandeggs --yummm)

it does seem like the tree gods have it in for the tourists

I'll bring an umbrella with me tomorrow...

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Legally high in Mendocino

Craft brewers, world-class brandy distillers and pinot wizards are layering the Emerald Triangle with gold, purple and amber. Seeing the writing on the wall for the pot trade,  enterprising locals have turned to legal intoxicants to fill their coffers.

From Germain-Robin combining old-world technology with premium Riesling, Columbard and Zin to distill small-batch brandies rated "beautifully crafted...better than most cognacs,"to quirky Booneville's Anderson Valley Brewing Company. The solar-powered brewery derives their quaffs names from the esoteric Boontling dialect-- a blend of Gaelic, Irish, Pomoan and Spanish spoken by a handful of Boonevillians. The buzz is on.

Although a California native, this would be my first trip to legendary Mendocino and the Anderson Valley, called the New Napa by a pumped up Visitors Center. A new friend shared her method for tasting through this narrow valley snaking from 101 to the coast: Hit the wineries going northwest, beer while retracing your path on the way home, with a possible detour to Ukiah for the brandy and elevated corn whiskey (really?).

My partner-in-dregs and I did our best with the 20 tasting rooms in 15 miles-- heading west on 128,  we hit Boonville General store for coffee and pastries to coat the belly. First stop, with the sun barely ticking past high noon,  was at the lovely Navarro Vineyards, where we sampled their private label chevre alongside their fabulous dry Gewurtz. Heading down the Valley, we ducked into a tiny rose-festooned redwood cabin -- home to friendly Husch, oldest Pinot producers in the Valley. We braved six switchbacks up the mountain to reach another winery, Esterlina, with a killer view but mediocre wines. We swirled and spit single-vineyard Zins (consistently raking in 90 points or better from Wine Spectator) at Edmeades-Champ de Reves' elegant tasting room. Of these four, Husch won our hearts--both for their kindness and their  2010 Old Vines Mendocino Zin. Most wineries in the Anderson Valley don't charge tasting room fees: it really did feel like Napa in the 80s, before the really big bucks flooded that valley.

Sweating through 100+ temps, we twisted our way from umber hills through stately redwood forest to the fog-draped coast. I hoped arriving at the real town would finally dampen the inane tune,  "Mendocino"  from the Easy Rider soundtrack swirling in my brain. (Here's a priceless clip of Sir Douglas getting a little sweaty serenading the Playboy bunnies with his anthem of teenage seduction.

Mendocino village perches on a promontory; marine mist washes over the town most days--making it appear Brigadoonesque when approaching from the south.  We traipsed through the dog-eared streets where the flood of local marijuana wealth has slowed, in recent years, to a trickle. Among the vacant shops for lease, we found some standout survivors: Moore Books with a bookseller who looks like a cross between Santa Claus and Allan Ginsberg; Moody's organic coffee bar -- carrying Wicked Bon Bon's Whiskey and Gunpowder chocolates; and of course the local head shop, Spark, that stocked Chihuly-worthy blown glass bongs and some lip-smacking pipe tobaccos. While some tourists still come to see where Angela Lansbury starred in "Murder She Wrote," and populate the Victorian hotels and B&Bs, we couldn't shake that eerie feeling of a town nearly time-forgotten.

What to do here in this quiet village besides drink and shop? Kayak, dive, hike--just don't wander into the back country where international crime rings still grow and smuggle massive tracts of weed.  But smoke dope with a chill group on the beach enjoying a sunset bonfire? If you want to take in the very mellow mendo of it all.

With the weekend before us, we trudged along the dry paths of Russian Gulch to the waterfall; rambled out to seal rock at MacKerricher; and rode horses on the beach (yes, it is a travel cliche). The Glendeven Inn was a hit with their impressive scotch collection and incredibly well-schooled bartenders.

But the best moments had to be back at the Brewery Gulch Inn, a peaceful, light-filled retreat built from river-salvaged redwoods just outside of town. We say on the deck with a pomegranate-colored Husch 2009 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir and toasted the spirit of Mendocino-- quirky, gorgeous and still a little rough around the edges.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

pancakes and burghers

They serve up a hearty brekkie here in Parliament Square on Shrove Tuesday. The pancake race launched at precisely 10:12 this morning, the Lords against the MPs... after a gruelling relay, and several cakes afoul, the Lords were in good form, showing their genetic propensity for flip-flopping and running flat out to stay ahead of the commoners.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Matchless Vale De-animated

Today may have been my last day as a meadow warden, through no choice of my own. I scratched Fluffy and No. 349, watched the increasingly curly-coated calves snuffle their mums, and skimmed their water trough. Last month, the cows endured a vicious dog attack that, surprisingly, made the news as far away as New Zealand. Perhaps it was due to Petersham Meadow's celebrated beauty. Or the universal conflict between pets (really their owners) on public right of ways, and livestock.

In this case, the attack dog was part pit bull, what the Brits call an "illegal dog." A fellow meadow warden, Claire, who captured the attack on her camera, told me these dogs must be licensed and monitored by the police. While the owner and dog fled the scene, they were tracked down in half a day. (Perhaps there is an advantage to all these CCTV cameras everywhere. I just didn't know their acute vision extended to the meadow.)

The perfect storm stems from the muddy zone between public rights, health & safety regulations, Council land ownership, and the risk-averse National Trust managing the land. Meanwhile, an increasingly obstreperous segment of the public refuses to acknowledge the signs to keep dogs on leads, or barbecues out of the meadow-- both hazards to livestock roaming on and over public paths.

During my brief career here, I've seen small children gaze on the cows from an oak stump in the pasture for the better part of an hour, utterly transfixed--and weep to leave. Parents towing their older kids to show them descendants of the cows they grew up with. Hikers stopped in their tracks and figuring out how to get through the herd, mostly with bemused smiles. I've spoken with dozens of locals who cherish this bit of bovine heritage in their backyards, and supported the Petersham Trust for years, raising the money to keep the cows on the meadow through open garden days and cake sales. And the cows have done their part as well, anchoring the meadow and keeping it safe from developer's squalls. Last fall, the riparian meadow and cattle care were transferred to the National Trust, along with an endowment. The stipulation was framed in legalese, that the NT would "endeavour" to keep the cows on the meadow. That endeavour ended today.

The National Trust is unhooking themselves from the horns of the dilemma by shipping the cows and calves back to farmer Michael Bovingdon in Slough. After a mere six months, they are unwilling to carry the risk of a lawsuit, should someone be injured by a cow.

It raises all kinds of questions, not least of which is what have we trampled in our rush to maximize individual rights and freedoms. I think about the surly man who told me he would jolly well keep his german shepherd off lead because the dog is always under voice control. Or the 12-strong group of party folk who told Lin to shag off last weekend when she said fires were prohibited. Have we forgotten that livestock are more than trees dressing the stage of our theatre? That they might have something to teach us, if we were open to another way of being?

This was the closest herd to Hyde Park--a factoid one would have thought bore more intrigue than danger. Who is more of a threat, sloshed urbanites on their weekend idyll, or the cows protecting their young?

By any measurer, this is a tremendous loss. Now when parents bring their toddlers to watch large animals doing what they do, the kids will see a stunningly beautiful, but empty meadow.