Richard Ha writes:
Today I was thinking about my grandmother Leihulu’s brother, Ulrich Kamahele.
Everybody knew him as Uncle Sonny, as if there was only one “Uncle Sonny” in all of Hawai‘i. He was a larger-than-life character. In a crowd, he dominated by the sheer force of his personality. Since I have been thinking about him, I thought I would write a several-part story about Maku‘u.
My extended Kamahele family came from Maku‘u. When we were small kids, Pop would take us in his ‘51 Chevy to visit.
He would turn left just past the heart of Pahoa town, where the barbershop is today. We drove down that road until he hit the railroad tracks, and then turned left on the old railroad grade back toward Hilo. A few miles down the railroad grading was the old Maku‘u station. It was an old wooden shack with bench seats, as I recall. That is where the train stopped in the old days. A road wound around the pahoehoe lava flow all the way down the beach to Maku‘u. That was before there were the Paradise Park or Hawaiian Beaches subdivisions.
We did not know there was a district called Maku‘u; we thought the family compound was named Maku‘u. Of the 20-acre property, maybe 10 acres consisted of a kipuka where the soil was ten feet deep. The 10 acres on the Hilo side were typical pahoehoe lava. The property had a long oceanfront with a coconut grove running the length of the oceanfront. It was maybe 30 trees deep and 50 feet tall.
The old-style, two-story house sat on the edge of a slope just behind the coconut grove. If I recall correctly, it had a red roof and green walls. Instead of concrete blocks as supports for the posts, they used big rocks from down the beach.
There was no telephone, no electricity and no running water. So when we arrived it was a special occasion. We kids never, ever got as welcome a reception as we got whenever we went to Maku‘u.
And the person happiest to see us small kids was tutu lady Meleana. She was my grandma Leihulu’s mom. She was a tiny, gentle woman, maybe 100 pounds, but very much the matriarch of the family. She spoke very little English but it was never an issue. We communicated just fine.
We could not wait to go down the beach. Once she took us kids to catch ‘ohua—baby manini. She used a net with coconut leaves as handles that she used to herd the fish into the net. I don’t recall how she dried it, but I remember how we used to stick our hands in a jar to eat one at a time. They were good.
She would get a few ‘opihi and a few haukeuke and we spent a lot of time poking around looking at this sea creature and that.
Between the ocean in the front and the taro patch, ulu trees, bananas and pig pen in the back, there was no problem about food. I know how Hawaiians could be self-sufficient because I saw it in action.
The house was full of rolls of stripped lauhala leaves. There were several lauhala trees and one was a variegated type. I don’t recall if it was used for lauhala mats but it dominated the road to the house.
There were lauhala mats all over the place, four and five thick. There was a redwood water tank, and the kitchen water pipe had a Bull Durham bag on the spout as a water filter.
Years later when I showed interest in playing slack key, I was given Tutu’s old Martin guitar.
She had played it so often that the bottom frets had indentations in it where her fingers went.
Coming soon: What I learned from Uncle Sonny about farming and life.