Maui: An Underwater Tea Party of Seventeen
(No this isn't client work. Just some personal musings after a buoyant family vacation!)
Thirty-nine years ago my mom and dad were married in Maui, in a little taupe church, by a man named Father Berger. I often forget what year they were married, but never the name of the Priest. As a child, you just don’t forget a name like that.
The dwelling sits at the end of Front Street in downtown Lahaina, where Plumerias litter sidewalks and the warm, agate-blue ocean flanks the road. My oldest sister was in attendance, along with my mom’s parents. Yellowed pictures show a young couple – my mom in a red and white floral skirt, my dad in a casual collared shirt, displaying a small palm tree and a few beachy stripes – and their small wedding party, on the lawn in front of the church.
On that same grass, just one month ago, a group of seventeen of us gathered for another photograph. The same couple stood arm in arm, like they did almost four decades prior. But this time, an assembly of kids, grandkids, and spouses surrounded them.
Like a Banyan Tree, this family, too, has diverged, taken root and branched into offshoots. Though unlike the Banyan’s unidentifiable trunk, we can trace the beginnings of this matchless crew – some bound by blood, all bound by love – back to my parents. And back to Hawaii.
Maui is where our family began. And, over the years, it’s where we’d continue to find solace, joy, and restoration.
When I was only a few years old, my grandparents would purchase a condo fifteen minutes down the road from that taupe church with dark eves. This would become the center point for our summer vacations and where we would retreat, sandy and tan, pleasantly gassed.
The neighboring island of Oahu would, at one point, house my brother; allowing the former Medical Corpsman tropical respite between tours in Iraq. In due course, he and his wife would tie the knot in Kona, on the big island. I would visit Maui by myself, amidst life’s rocky transitions. And sit in the sand, dip in the surf, and roll out my yoga mat on the lanai, with only my company to keep. My sisters would occasionally wade in the waves with swells of their own – growing future water-babies under sun-bleached swimsuits. And my mom would take her mother on my grandmother’s final Hawaiian vacation: just the two of them, alongside the palms, vibrant sunsets and wet air.
This place holds memories of youth, transition, new starts, and memorable endings, strong currents, oozy-fresh pineapple, and the occasional, celebration-worthy, intact cowry shell. And now the memory of seventeen of us, standing in the very spot two people said I do.
More gratifying than experiencing Maui as a 30-something-year-old adult was seeing it again through the youthful eyes of a child.
Like watching them sit, scoot, and roll in the surf, with complete indifference to the influx of sand into every nook and cranny of a swimsuit. (Girls, remember having to empty that useless little pouch in the crotch that filled up like a hacky sack? Why is this even here?!) And seeing them get lost for hours in the slow lull of the tide – the way I used to, too – mask on and head down, hunting for shells and enjoying the pulse of the sea, each miner’s loot growing bulky in the pockets of their mom’s beach chairs. I’d sense jealously creep in as I observed hoards of kids discard swimwear and cover-ups, only to run around on the beach free of clothes, social anxieties, body dysmorphia, and tan lines.
There were handstand contests and underwater tea parties in the shallow end of the swimming pool, reminding me of long summers in Santa Cruz spent buoyant in our backyard, along with how it feels to have chlorine against wide eyes, and the complexity of pouring tea into an invisible cup and saucer.
Hunting for geckos, a long-lost expedition amongst us grown (and all around less exciting) kids, returned as the usual nightcap. My sister-in-law bravely led a pack of eager youngsters around the periphery of the buildings; some of them toting bug nets or the occasional baby sister. The troop leader would pause before her voice echoed with suspense and uncertainty. “Could they be over here?” Yelps, screams and net flinging ensued.
And suddenly getting up at 6am didn’t seem so bad. In fact, Mitch and I eagerly left the confines of the condo upon waking. (On the days we missed sunrise, I chastised myself for letting my dream world seep into this waking time. Somehow, here on the island, it seemed much more precious – and terrifyingly expendable.) Greeting the morning meant either a walk to a neighboring beach, swimming laps in our sheltered cove (where Mitch sweetly reminded me that dawn is shark feeding time), or hauling the paddleboard to the sand and getting in a tour of the coast before breakfast.
Shark phobias aside, I had forgotten how much I love to swim. In fact, I had forgotten a lot of things.
Like the boding strength of the waves and what it feels like to respect the ocean: how she can be gentle and embracing, rhythmic and caressing one minute, and then firm, demanding, and even punishing the next. I had forgotten my distaste for applying coats upon coats of sunscreen. And how once you get sand on a lathered hand, you’re doomed to rub that tiny grain over your entire body, receiving the beachside spa treatment you never wanted.
I failed to remember what pineapples taste like when they are so ripe the skin puckers with the volume of nectar, and each bite sends sticky trickles down your chin; but you don’t mind because your face is already white with zinc, salt is caked at your temples, dreads have began to form in your oceanic tufts of weave, and you’ve just exfoliated yourself with sand anyhow.
And I think Mitch and I had both forgotten what it was like to not have the weight of the world – immigration, work visas, attorneys, cruddy stacks of legal papers that will make your eyes cross – balancing precariously on our shoulders.
Over the next eight days we played and ran and paddled and swam.
We climbed trees using vines as thick as an aerialist’s Spanish web. We saw dozens (dozens!) of sea turtles. Ones sleeping and eating and coasting. Each long stroke like a slow motion wave to a speeding car, reminding us to slowwww dowwnnn.
I made a sandy mermaid tail for my niece. And even one, rather impressive Plumeria necklace, using the small sewing kit in our condo. (That is, after insisting she collects all the flowers.)
Mitch took the kids out on the front of his paddleboard in shifts, the commentary always diverse. Sometimes it was about the patches of coral reef below – how the ocean floor suddenly appeared ominously dark in contrast to the light sand. Or who was up next for a tour (and who might be upset by the announcement). Meanwhile, on the beach, the conversation revolved around three cuttlefish that seemed to take up residence by the far rocks – one big, two small, with translucent skin that pulsed with pinks and peaches and whites, depending on the perceived threat of your outstretched finger.
My dad took post in the sand, generally in the shade of a cone pine or an umbrella, watching the endless show of boogie boards, small feet, and eager smiles. Napping toddlers took respite in shifts between towels at his feet.
My mom “mother-henned” all 16 of us. Whether she was cooking nightly for the entire lot (no joke, only my mom and a catering company can plan a week’s worth of meals for a group this big in her head, and proceed to prep and execute dinners perfectly) or holding babies by their tiny hands while she straddled them in the surf. Here, they could feel the froth against chubby legs. And maybe they could even begin to know the magnitude of the sea: her ethereal strength, the way she gives life, and the way she can drown it out.
(Eventually, the kids will learn that the sea can’t do it alone. Sitting in plastic blue chairs attached to laminate desks, they will find out about her dance with the moon. One I’ve always found magically ineffable – far too vast for even the most diligent scientific explanations.)
I love Maui. It’s in my blood. I actually like to remind my three siblings that I was the only one conceived on the island. It should gross me out a bit, but more so, I enjoy getting a rise out of them. I keep it in my back pocket and use it strategically for a good “Ewww”. But hands down, the best part about this trip was getting to spend time with family. It wasn’t a quick holiday gathering or a daytrip-visit. It was a week of bonding. And the melding of some really quirky DNA.
Now that a few of my nieces are older, I can see how we each share pieces – pieces of whoever came before us: Elliana is sensitive and curious. She doesn’t like to take a step forward until she is sure of herself and her metaphorical footing. I think my kindergarten teacher wrote the same thing on my report card decades ago. Devon has my drive, eagerness and wit. But it’s mixed with a confidence I never possessed. I’m rather envious of her 10-year-old endeavors that blossom from being so self-assured.
And Mitch pointed out how similar I am to my dad: how we both think we’re funny… but no one really pays attention to us. So we feed off of each other, making bad jokes or dancing around for laughs, mainly just pleasing each other. To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about this revelation… or Mitch’s outlook on my humor.
Rest assured, I’m not the only weirdo in the bunch. The whole lot of us still quotes offbeat 80’s and 90’s movies; mainly the ones recorded onto VHS tapes that towered in our oak TV cabinet. Ones like Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, Little Giants, Liar Liar, and Robin Hood Men in Tights.
We fall back into the rhythm we learned as children: teasing and laughing, still craving attention from our parents, yet embarking on the uncharted territory of getting to know them as adults.
And we let the actual pint-sized kids remind us what it’s like to be small, in a world of wonder far too big to comprehend. And they help us relearn to frolic, to question, to explore our independence, to revel in simplicity. Because embarking on underwater tea parties or evening toad races or hour-long shell hunts may go latent. But unlike a tan line from the languid Hawaiian sun, the desire to play never quite fades away.