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BLUES FROM DOWN DEEP
By GWYNNE FORSTER
Dafina BooksCopyright © 2003 Gwendolyn Johnson Acsadi
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRegina Pearson had everything a forty-year-old woman could want. Everything, that is, except a feeling that she belonged to someone or in some place. That she was an intrinsic part of a warm, loving family. When she looked at the people and the place she'd known all of her life, she didn't think, I'm a part of this; it's me; it's who I am. Even the sunshine that greeted her every morning and the ever-present scent of the tropical blooms the world loved seemed to her a foreign thing, and it always had. It didn't mean to her what it meant to the people she knew best-the Native Hawaiians. Many of them worshiped the sun as a deity, just as they paid homage to Kanaloa, god of eternal hope and happiness, but Papa had admonished her that that was a form of paganism. It wasn't her place, and the people around her were not her people. But they were all she had.
She sat with her best friend, Kalani, whose ancestors had lived for centuries on the island of Oahu, in her late father's bedroom sorting out his belongings. Kalani didn't think it proper to wade through a dead person's private dreams, goals, personal successes, and failures, and told Regina as much.
"It's Papa's wish, Kalani." Just one more of the numerous cultural differences between herself and the Hawaiian people with whom she had lived all of her life. Mainlanders tended not to socialize with the Native Hawaiians, though her father had intentionally settled among them.
"What about your people? None of them came to the burial." Kalani's people didn't have funerals.
"Papa never told me anything about his family or his life," she said, "just that he came from the southern part of the United States and never wanted to see the place again. I don't even know why he left there and settled here." She hadn't even known of her father's considerable wealth; they certainly had not lived as people of means, and he never spoke to her of his finances. It surprised her that his will made her a wealthy woman.
"Didn't he leave some relatives on the mainland?" Kalani asked her. "What about your mother, if you don't mind my asking?"
"She died when I was two, and he never talked about her. If I mentioned her, he'd just look off in space and act like he didn't hear me. I guess it hurt him to talk about her. When I would ask him about our kinfolk, he'd say we didn't have any. Watching television and seeing African Americans on the screen, I used to wonder if any of them were related to me."
"Why? You can't like what you see of them on TV and read in the papers; most of the time, they seem to be doing something bad."
"I know. Or stupid, like in those sitcoms. Papa always said the media likes to show us in a bad light, and that's as far as he would go on the subject. You know, Kalani, I'll be forty April twenty-sixth, and I don't know hardly anything about myself. I wish I had some relatives, some people who look like me and who care about me. I'm tired of feeling like a freak."
Kalani tied a piece of cord around a box of clothing and marked it for the seniors center. "Regina, we don't see you that way. Besides, there are African Americans living in Honolulu, and a lot of them visit here."
"Right. One in every two hundred thousand, and they don't go to my school, my community center, the local library, and the other places I go."
"It's too bad you didn't insist on some answers from your dad. What are you going to do now?"
"I'll get to that when I finish with ... Look at this, will you?"
Kalani rushed to her. "What? What's that?"
"It's an envelope from somebody named Maude Witherspoon, addressed to my mother, and it's dated the year before I was born. I can't make out the month and day. New Bern, North Carolina? Never heard of the place."
"What does it say?"
She pushed back the envelope flap. "Nothing. There's no letter inside." Although she fixed a smile on her face, she couldn't hide from her friend the sudden depression that spread over her.
Sensing Regina's dampened mood, Kalani tried to cheer her. "Regina, why don't you come to my family's party next week? It's our family reunion, and you'll meet people from the states, Canada, Sweden, Japan, and a lot of other places as well as Hawaii. We always have a luau, a Japanese tea ceremony, and a Texas barbecue. You'll enjoy it, and maybe it will pull you out of the dumps."
How was the company of a hundred strangers supposed to make her feel better? The local customs dictated that she accept, so she thanked her friend and prepared herself for another experience of isolation in the midst of a crowd.
They lugged a dozen boxes to Kalani's old station wagon and left them at the seniors center. "You should have buried your father's precious things along with him," Kalani said, "but you didn't, so you should burn them."
"I have to do exactly what he asked me to do," Regina said, aware that she was contravening a sacred custom of Kalani's people. "My father didn't believe in wasting anything. He wanted poor people to have whatever I can't use."
They said good-bye, and Regina headed for her own apartment on Huauni Place, taking the long route along Diamond Head Road in the direction of Diamond Head, the 761-foot peak that dominated the Oahu Island skyline before the advent of skyscraper hotels, and which loomed above an extinct volcanic crater that was the site of an ancient Hawaiian burial ground. Diamond Head was the one thing, other than the Pacific Ocean, that she liked about Honolulu. She could count on it; after thousands of years in that spot, it never changed, and when she looked out of her kitchen window, she knew it would stand there, gazing at the Pacific's enormous waves and swirling foam.
"Mustn't get sentimental about the Pacific," she told herself, remembering that it took her mother.
Several days later, primed for a Hawaiian family reunion, she reached number 22 Kahoaa Street in heightened spirits, although she did not relish the company of so many people who were likely to wonder about her presence among them. She couldn't know that this April day would mark a turning point in her life-that the warmth, love, and friendliness with which Kalani's scores of relatives greeted her would motivate her to find her own family.
"Sorry to hear about Miles." She swung around, knowing who she would see. "He had a rough time of it," Ken Pahoa, her Native Hawaiian former lover, said of her father, "so we shouldn't begrudge him his rest. What are your plans?"
"I haven't made any yet."
"I suppose now you're sorry you walked out on me. If you want to come back, we'll have to have some ground rules. For one, you'll accept that I'm head of the house, and do as I say."
She laughed aloud. Not in amusement, but as a cleansing emotion that seemed to scrape itself from the bowels of her being. He grabbed her shoulders, but still she laughed.
"You're hysterical," he growled. "Cut it out. I don't see anything funny."
She brought herself under control. "I do. I left you because I couldn't tolerate living with you any longer. What do you think changed in a month's time? And I was laughing at myself for having been such a nitwit. Trust me, not having a man in my life is a blessed state compared to what it was with you the past months." Oh, how sweet it was to know she'd shaken his self-assurance, that she'd punched a hole in his ego. "I need you the way a car needs a flat tire."
His mouth twisted in anger, but she didn't care. He hadn't believed her when she told him he was out of her life for good.
"I hope you and Ken aren't planning to get back together," Kalani said later as they leaned against a banyon tree, inhaling the scent of freshly mowed grass and sipping cold coconut milk.
"Not a chance. That's all behind me now. I've had my fill of men-two of them as lovers-and my papa was no prize."
Kalani didn't question her about that; asking personal questions wasn't the way of her people. Instead, her raised eyebrow showed her bafflement.
"You don't know how fortunate you are. A hundred and thirtysome relatives all around you, embracing, swapping jokes, telling tales about each other, and reminiscing about those who are absent. I've never had any of that. You know your background, your culture and where you fit in"-she waved her right hand-"among these people. You know who you are, but I can only guess at who I am."
"Please don't be sad. With my family here, we're supposed to be merrymaking."
Regina looked toward the vast Pacific. "I'm not one bit sad. I realize I've been making up my mind to leave Honolulu. Tomorrow, I'm going to begin searching for Maude Witherspoon. I want to know what it's like to be a member of a family. If she knew my mother, she may know my mother's relatives."
"But Regina, you said the envelope was postmarked more than forty years ago."
"When my mother got that letter, she was twenty-one years old, so some of her relatives are still living. I'm going to find them. I have to. You don't know what it's like to be alone. There are people around me, yes, but they don't know who I am, and they don't show me who they are. If you look at it closely, you'll see that around here, I'm really a nobody."
From that day, Regina's search occupied her mind every minute of her waking hours, interfering with concentration on her work as a publicist and event planner for Hawaii's Mt. Royal Hotels. Hours of searching on the Internet yielded no clues as to the whereabouts of Maude Witherspoon.
One afternoon, not long after Regina's father died, Kalani stared at the Pacific from a window in Regina's office at Oahu Royal Hotel and spoke with her back to Regina-a signal that her words would not bring pleasure. "She may not be living. Maybe you just have to accept that you're not going to find her. Anything can happen to a person in forty years."
"I can't give up. She's the only thread I have. I wrote the chamber of commerce but haven't gotten an answer. I may have to hire a lawyer or somebody in New Bern to look for her if I don't find her in one of those nineteen-ninety census tract volumes I ordered through the university."
"Did you try the phone company?"
Regina looked to the ceiling, as she had so often seen her father do when nonplussed. "First thing. `Please speak the address clearly' was the reply I got from that digital operator. I hate those recordings. I don't have an address, but tell that to the recorded voice."
She despaired of waiting for the census tract records, sent to New Bern for some newspapers, and began searching them for a legal representative. Weeks passed, but she made no progress. Mountains that she couldn't climb, rivers she couldn't cross-insurmountable objects impeding her flight from danger-plagued her in her dreams, and she awakened night after night panting and soaked with perspiration. When a reply arrived from the chamber of commerce, she ripped open the letter in frenzied anticipation, only to yield to exasperation when she saw that it contained only a brochure.
But Regina refused to give up. Perusing the brochure, she found a telephone number, dialed it, and stated her problem.
"Lots of Witherspoons around here," the woman in New Bern said. "One of them used to be a blues singer. She's famous, but I can't think of her name right now. Wait a minute. Maybe one of the colored women in here knows her."
Regina's breath hung in her throat as she waited for what seemed like hours but couldn't have been more than two minutes.
"You're looking for Maude van der Kaa," the woman said, and gave Regina the address. "I wish you luck."
She hung up, reached for the receiver to dial the New Bern telephone operator, and immediately withdrew her hand. She couldn't risk causing the woman to have a heart attack, and a phone call might net her a snap-judgment rejection. She wrote and rewrote a letter explaining who she was and inquiring about the woman's relationship to her mother. Finally, certain that she would probably never hear from Maude van der Kaa, she mailed it and returned to the unpleasant task of sorting out her parents' effects. Her father hadn't disposed of her mother's personal things but had locked them in a steamer trunk and stored it in a crib beside the house.
It was a Saturday morning in late May when her gaze landed on a packet of papers enclosed in a plastic envelope and tied with brown string. She knew at once that the papers contained something of value to her, and struggled with trembling fingers to untie the tightly knotted cord. Finally, she saw her mother's handwriting in love letters to her father, and then a certificate of marriage naming Miles Pearson and Louise Witherspoon as the celebrants. She nearly choked on her breath as the realization hit her that the Witherspoons of New Bern were her mother's relatives. She hadn't known her mother's maiden name, because she had learned as a small child that any questions to her father about her mother caused him to withdraw from her. As the years passed, she stopped asking questions.
Tears pooled in her lap as she stared at the treasure in her hands. She accepted them as tears of joy for having discovered something important about herself, and of sadness because she knew no one who would understand what she felt. Still, she had a sense of relief that she no longer depended on an answer from Maude van der Kaa as the means of finding her family.
She ordered copies of more recent issues of New Bern's daily and weekly newspapers and searched them for job possibilities, reasoning that nothing prevented her going there for a visit and staying if she found a job. A little over a week later, she received a letter from Maude, but her anxiety as to its contents was so acute that hours passed before she willed herself to open it.
I'm your Aunt Maude, she read, your mother's younger sister. We gave up hope long ago of ever hearing from her or anything about her. None of us knew where she and Miles went. I'm sorry to know they're both gone. I want you to come visit me right away and stay a while.
She phoned Kalani to share her joy and excitement, then began looking in earnest for work in or near New Bern. In The Sun Journal's classified advertisements, she found a job possibility, a chance to manage a hotel that was near completion. With trepidation she applied for the job and waited. She had given up hope when, in late July, the hotel owner called, interviewed her by telephone, and promised to get back to her. Three days later, the manager of the Hotel Hawaii told her that the owner of the Craven Hotel in New Bern had asked him to interview her.
"You'll get the job," he said after talking with her.
On that August evening, one day before her scheduled flight to New Bern, she walked at sunset along Waikiki Beach for a last look at her beloved Pacific Ocean.
Excerpted from BLUES FROM DOWN DEEP by GWYNNE FORSTER Copyright © 2003 by Gwendolyn Johnson Acsadi
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.