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September 28, 2004

The Ukulele Saga

"Are you sitting down?" Every time Mom has said that to me, someone's died, and when she called today, I thought, All the elders are gone...who could it possibly be?

That lightswitch fight-or-flight instinct snapped on, when death is suddenly in your face and all the hairs on your body stand 90 degrees on your skin, when your breath stops and your heart clinches, and every finger of every nerve in your body--braces.

"I have some news for you."


I was twenty, in Texas, and suffering from a devastating case of culture shock and homesickness for Hawai'i. I shut down--no appetite, couldn't sleep, felt like the whole world had lost its color.

Dad was thirty years expatriated from Hawai'i by then; he knew well how exile wastes the soul, and he did his best to hearten me while taking great care to avoid plunging me into deeper Depression.

One day, he brought out his ukulele. "It's a Kamaka." He spoke with tenderness and reverence. It had been a gift to him from his Daddy, my Grampa George. In 1959, Dad was nineteen, and shortly after Hawai'i became a state, he joined the military and left Hawai'i for his first permanent station on the mainland.

He was so homesick, he told me, and he missed his Daddy. Grampa George knew how sad and lonely for Hawai'i his son was, so he sent him a piece of home--this same ukulele.

It was the most beautiful instrument I'd ever seen in my life. Deep, rich koa, unscratched, unblemished in the thirty years and thousands of miles Dad had owned it. The lacquer glistened, and as he strummed his thick fingertips over the strings, a sound issued from its straight belly like a song from a lost century.

I fell in love with that singular piece of Hawaiian craftsmanship, and Dad trained me to it with his patient and soulful instruction. He taught me how to tune it, how to strum. He taught me the vamp and old songs. And there were times when he would begin to play and forget I was there, and he'd flow from one song to the next, melody lost between notes, but his mind hearing it in its fullness sometime long ago.

I cherished that ukulele like a lover. I carried it with me whever I went and brought it out from its leather case daily, whenever a song stirred me. I played on the road, in the laundromat, at the beach, in the parking lot after work. The Kamaka was as much a part of me as the songs I wrote for it.

It was never spoken between us, but it was understood: someday, his ukulele would be mine.


Two years later, I left my husband for another man (who I'm with to this day). The entire gene pool felt the impact, and everyone from my siblings to my aunts and uncles to my second and third cousins had an opinion, and they were not ashamed to express it. Worse for me, some felt it their divine duty to sanction my infraction with formal retributive measures.

The two material possessions I had to my name were my little VW bug, and Dad's ukulele. Both were the source of my sustenance: one for my livelihood, one for my soul.

One day, Dad summoned me. His face was grim, and his words came weak and void of conviction. "I need the ukulele."

"Okay," I said, and with no protest. It was, after all, his ukulele, and my respect for him was such that I did not question, or let on I held any reservations about his request.

"Your auntie is coming tomorrow to get the car and the ukulele."

One would think I would've at least offered a few words in defense, but in my world, in that year, in the shadow of what I'd done "to the family," the words offered were, "Yes, sir," chased by bitter, bitter tears and an overwhelming sense of destitution.

It was more than a punishment. It was dehumanizing. It was a death sentence.

I couldn't bear to be around when Auntie came to claim my most prized possessions, so with gravest acquiescence, I placed my keys and Dad's ukulele into his heavy hands and left for two days.

When I returned, the car and the Kamaka were gone, and a part of me knew I'd never again hold that treasured piece of my father and our homeland.


I never asked about the ukulele. I did eventually get the car back, but not without exposing myself to utter and shameless humiliation. My uncle refused to allow my boyfriend to step one foot on his property, so there I was, six months pregnant, helping to push the car to the street so we could hook it up to tow it away.

Long after the dust settled--and as is our family way, it did settle, all debts forgiven, owed or not--I never once asked about the ukulele, who had it, where it was, if it were ever played, if it were cared for.

When Dad died and we all gathered together for his funeral, I did not ask about the ukulele, the only possession of his that I was concerned about. But oh! how my mind burned about it! With Dad gone and no will, the fate of his Kamaka rested on the whims or good judgement of my Auntie, and I dared not hope she might return it to me.

My greatest fear was she'd pass it on to one of her own children, and then it would be severed from me surely and permanently. Still, I did not mention it.

Within the next few years, Uncle died, then Auntie died, and in the midst of mourning, my mind turned always to the ukulele. Now that Auntie was no longer here, there was no reason to hope she might find it fitting to return Dad's ukulele to me. She left seven children, and so the future of the ukulele would fall into the hands of one of them.

I was sure none of my cousins had the faintest idea the ukulele meant anything more to me than any other expensive instrument, and it was at this point I finally mourned the death of the ukulele, anticipating it would now become the property of someone else, to sit collecting dust in a dark, neglected closet.


It was a year after Auntie died when I began to hope again. I finally gathered the courage to ask about the ukulele. After nights and nights of struggling to come up with just the right words to say, I penned a letter to my favorite cousin and included $30 for shipping. In my mind, I risked everything--humiliation, losing $30 I truly couldn't afford, and most of all, experiencing a two-fold loss all over again--on the slim possibility a cousin might still have Dad's ukulele, and less likely, he be willing to send it to me, no questions asked.

It was August 10th when I mailed the letter. I forced myself to forget about it once the postman carried it away--like a message in a bottle. If my cousin were willing, there would be no telling when I'd know. If he weren't willing, I'd never know. So, I bade the letter goodbye and walked away from it.

Weeks passed. I heard nothing, and I couldn't bring myself to call. I imagined Dad's Kamaka was in the hands of a stranger, loaned out in good faith and never returned. Or it was pawned and in the possession of some sidewalk musician five states away. Or it was on eBay, selling at $700 alongside a dozen other Kamakas with less blood and soul seeped into their koa bodies.

At times, as in all the years since I last held Dad's ukulele, I allowed myself to cry and hurt and regret and wish. But not often. I could not afford to mourn for too long, else I'd turn on myself and feel I was somehow desecrating something very, very sacred. And at that depth, I wouldn't deserve the ukulele anyway.


"Are you sitting down?"

"Yes." It was crossing the Rubicon.

"Your ukulele came in the mail today."


Can one possibly know the feeling in experiencing a loved one resurrected. My tears today, so fewer than all those I've cried in mourning year after year after year, were purer and more reverberating than any tears I've ever cried before. It's as if Dad is alive again, and for the first and only time since he placed his ukulele in my hands and positioned my bony fingers on the strings with his own, he is with me in this special way. He is--without question, reservation, or revocation--with me.



Mom will hand-carry Dad's ukulele to me within the next couple weeks. My spirit isn't fully at peace yet, and it won't be until I hold the Kamaka in my hands again and feel the surety of its weight.

I anticipate it will be a profoundly emotional experience for me. In the perfect way of the Divine, He's arranged for all three of my siblings to be here with me when the ukulele is returned. It will be the first time all four of us have been together in the same room for over three years.

I'm sure I give the impression I'm a bit obsessed with our family, or grief, or both, and that may be truth. But it's also truth that all of us are this way, and we are this way because we've grown up feeling displaced everywhere else but together, among each other. We cling to our parents, our past, our lineage, our heritage, our last name as if all of these are a vulnerable, organic shared heart that keeps us alive. We--including our eldest half-sister who was not raised alongside us--speak our last name as if it were an ancient race--We're Laranang--as a collective consciousness.

This account of "The Ukulele Saga," as it's come to be known by the five of us, is mine. The loss and absence of the ukulele has affected all of us in unique ways. In our own ways, we've mourned; in our own ways, we've hoped; in our own ways, we've done what we could to get Dad's ukulele back home. But none of us had ever really expected the best.

A miracle for one Laranang is a miracle for all of us. I have no doubt the return of the ukulele will be one of our most memorable experiences.

And yet, when I think of holding Dad's ukulele again, I imagine solitude, still strings, unbroken silence. Turning my ear to a faint song calling from a lost century.


Thank you, D., for sending it on. You can never know how much this means to me. Aloha, cousin.

Posted by A‘ilina at September 28, 2004 09:43 PM


Posted by Ali on September 29, 2004 6:19 AM:

That is one of the most touching stories I have ever read. It makes me think how I might take some of my heirlooms for granted. I just wanted to say thank you for your entry. I live in Texas and I've been here all my life. Hawaii is one of the only places that I have had a burning to desire to be, not just for its beauty, but because the people that truly live there, live as a part of the land. When I move to Hawaii, I'll remember where I grew up, but it won't ever be a part of me like Hawaii was to you. It will always be just a place, instead of a home. If you have any advice on where in Hawaii is the best place to live, let me know. I could really use your advice.

Posted by A'ilina on September 29, 2004 8:39 PM:

Thank you for your comments, Ali. I'm glad you enjoyed that story, especially since the subject matter is so personal.

That's a tough question you ask about where in Hawaii is the best place to live. That entirely depends on what you expect and the kind of lifestyle you want to lead. Hawai'i can be big city, or it can be country. It can be beach-kine rural, or small-town rural.

You might check out the Islands Ahoy thread over at HawaiiThreads.com. This same question has been addressed before, and you might gain better insight from the people who are there and have been there for a long time. My opinion would be totally biased. ;)

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