My first word was "flower." At least that’s what my Mom’s told me since I was a kid. Maybe even since I was two years old, about when I started spending a lot of time with my Tutu. We’d walk around her yard in Kilauea, picking hibiscus and plumeria to decorate the costume hats she crafted for me from paper bags.
The first job that I was ever paid for was making leis at a flower shop. I think I was twelve. Before that, my friends and I sold leis and bouquets to tourists for pocket money, from the side of the road in front of our houses. Peacefully stringing flower leis is one of my favorite things to do, possibly even more than cooking. The sheer beauty that exists in a single flower is only amplified when multiplied or variegated in a thoughtful pattern. Gathering the blossoms from your garden, the yards of friends, or wild areas is also part of the pleasure.
If you live on Kauai, you know where the good plumeria trees are. In June, when the flowers were blooming, I arrived on the island to find the trees partially picked over after the string of recent graduation ceremonies (6th grade, middle school, high school, college…). In Hawaii, it’s common for high school students to be virtually unrecognizable under a pile of leis following their graduation ceremony.
There used to be plumeria trees all over Anahola, on every school ground and in most yards, but these days they seem harder to find. If you have a plumeria tree and a couple of ti leaf plants, you have the resources to make a lei if an occasion arises to bring one. My family still has a couple of trees, but there are far more that line the road that borders my old high school campus, so that’s where my sister and I picked them for my Tutu’s memorial celebration.
I woke up the next day on Portland time, 6:00 a.m. in Hawaii. I quietly took the pretty pink plumerias from the refrigerator onto the porch, and strung the flowers together as the neighborhood rose. We draped those leis around my Tutu’s photograph, and sent baskets of loose plumeria and orchids out on a fishing boat into the ocean with her ashes.
After Tutu passed last year, we were looking through old photos (in most of them, she was wearing a lei) and letters, and I found a couple of typewritten sheets on how to make different types of leis from a class taught in the 80s by the esteemed Kauai leimaker and florist, Irmalee Pomroy. Someday, I hope to have a yard of my own where I can grow lei flowers, pick them and learn those more sophisticated lei making techniques. They say that people rarely make leis anymore, but I want to be someone who does.
I love to sing for you a plaintive melody
And give a lei to you to make you happy
It’s just an old Hawaiian custom
When I say aloha to you
-Excerpted from the lyrics of the song, “An Old Hawaiian Custom” by John Noble