Image Credit: Elizabeth Ginn
I’ve placed items in black plastic bags many times before. Grabbed quick and hidden items, thought-over items, and questioned do-we-really-need-to-keep-every-toy items. We’ve lost things with our leaving. I’ve asked my three daughters the questions over and over, move to move—what can we give away? What must we keep? These questions were inherited mother to daughter and daughter to daughters. My own mother spoke these words, her tone a spindle to her three children, countless times, placing our lives in plastic bags.
When we left our grey house in Kainaliu, I sold my daughters’ wooden bunkbeds, understanding we didn’t know our next home. I’d called Legal Aid at the urging of a friend, closing her office door, answering the questions on loss over her multi-line and purpose phone. She dialed the number. She had asked me to recommend a poem on grief, a leaving poem, when a family member passed. I spoke poetry to her, and she dialed the number for Legal Aid. She told them briefly on the line that I needed help. She spoke quickly, pushing her short hair behind one ear, saying she thought abuse was involved—fear and violence—passing me the receiver.
Were you married?
No, but we have three daughters.
Is the house in your name, too?
No. I was pregnant with our third, not working when we got the mortgage.
Is there an understanding. Paper trail or proof?
He always said we could put my name on the mortgage when I worked—cleaning jobs and
photography jobs didn’t count. Work in an office didn’t count. Children didn’t count.
Is there violence?
Yes. He has/does/will place his hands on me and my eldest daughter.
(The things I want to say: When pregnant with my third, he pinned his body to mine, squeezing my
daughter in utero. He had come home drunk and angry, speaking of the ghosts in the yard. I reached
for the phone in our dark bedroom. Pressing the three numbers from the memory of my fingers.
When the police arrived, like always, I told them he’d fallen asleep. I just wanted things to be silent
—go to peace.)
There’s not much we can do.
Where will I live? Where do I go with my children? He’s sold the house to his drug dealer who lives
up Sunset subdivision.
You can get a camping permit for a monthly fee. Please hold and I will get you the number for the
I don’t tell the woman at Legal Aid that I remember tents. I remember hiding in tents on beaches, in parks, near waterfalls to escape my father. My mother had packed our things, crossing ocean to place salt water and wind between us and his ready hands. For years, we feared, saying Is that Damon, my father, with the thread of the unknown wind that wound itself in our arched ears. Has he found us? Will he take one of us as we sleep?
When we bought my daughters their bunkbed, wooden from Costco, my middle daughter scratched her name into the railing—the first letter large and tilted to the right. Their bed held in my middle daughter’s blankets and blue doll that smelled like cupcakes. Their bed held in my youngest’s green Kermit and yellow Spirit. My youngest wet the bottom bunk mattress the night before I sold their bed. I washed the stain with white vinegar and lemon, hoping the scent of urine would fade with the heat of the sun that came through their east windows. My daughters woke early that morning, holding in their arms the things from their beds—the must-keep items.
I sold my eldest daughter’s white wicker bed and dressers that her Grandma Nola had chosen. Wicker was always a favorite of Nola’s. The apartment in Kona Shores along Aliʻi drive that Nola lived in before Jesse shot and killed the man in the Old Industrial Area—pumped a couple bullets into him. Subdued. Kiss on the check. Have to fix these trucks. Three shots. Walked into Kona Police station. $125,000 bail. Gun not registered to him—and wicker couches, wicker bookshelves, wicker tables, and a wicker headboard against the back wall.
Often, when I sat on the green cushions of the wicker couch, Jesse had leaned in to speak of his sister and his family. They’d owned a pig farm in California. He was born in Torrance, California. He told me his memories on the smell of pig shit. But before that, in Mexico, he held the stories of his family and sister’s hair.
Jesse would cook tortillas on the stovetop for my eldest, unfolding his memory as he fed my daughter her after-school snack. He’d point to the white and grey crop of hair that curved over his skull, saying, I let her cut my hair. She wanted to. She did a good job. She’s so smart.
Nola’s son, my daughters’ father, called Jesse a bean eater.
After my daughter had eaten the tortillas that held black rings of the range element—a moving pattern of flour, corn, and fire—and after Jesse had spoken with quick and vibrant words that held wonder in warm patterned tones about my daughter, he’d thread the story of his sister. When she was young, just becoming a woman, longing for love—his family came from Mexico—their mother had moved into her daughter’s bed as a keep-safe measure. And every evening with her long fingers that knew the feel of life, she’d braid her own hair that perhaps remembered what it meant to be young and foolish in love. She would weave a length of hair into her daughter’s thick dark hair that held the desires of the young, hoping to keep her daughter away from the boy. And every evening once their mother fell asleep, Jesse’s sister took their thick braid that bound her to her mother, unlacing the dark and grey of their mother’s hair from her own. And every morning before their mother woke, his sister would climb back through her bedroom window, walking on bare and soft feet, re-breathing the air exchanged with the boy who spoke her name in exhales—re-braiding her hair that had known love with her mother’s sleeping grey.
When I sold my daughter’s wicker, the dresser drawers had come off the tracks and dust was caught in the weave of the white wood. At times, Nola would visit, telling her granddaughters that she hoped to leave behind the knowledge of how to choose a good piece of furniture. She insisted on the absence of particle board furniture. It’s not good. You must never buy particle board, she’d say. Never settle for inferior furniture.
She’d visit with the smell of her deep perfume—notes of musk and unknown flowers— and the feel of her hands that could never stay warm. Placing her fingers on the edge of my arm with a slight smile, Nola told me stories of that side, my children’s father’s side. They were French, French Canadian, German, and Ottawa. Her Father was a Boucher, French for Baker—with names such as Frenchie Boucher—
Justus J. (Chief) Boucher (1894-1950) 56
Edna M. Boucher (1895-1984) 89
Esther P. (Frenchie) Boucher (1897- 1969) 72
Waldon (Wally) Boucher (1900- 1952) 52
Rubert (Boss) Boucher (1903-1947) 44
Genevieve C. (Jeanie) (Beba) (Eva) Boucher (1904-1987) 83
Joseph WM. (Joe Bill) Boucher (1910-1970) 60
Clara M. (Sis) Boucher (1912-1993) 71
Vera Lee Boucher (1918-
Her mother was a Meyer, German—Gladys Meyer (1st wife) was only 4’ 11”, a woman of weight. Nola’s name is under Joseph WM. (Joe Bill) JR. & Gladys Meyer (1st wife). Nola’s six sons are listed A-F; her sister, Jane’s, children are listed A-D. Nola said she didn’t always love her father, not until she and her sister Jane were sent to live with him after their mother’s apartment caught fire. A tough man. A rough man. A roll-over-in-his-grave-if-he-knew-her-half-sister-Annie-married-a-black-man man, she said. This was the story she knew. The history she understood. This was a story she told when trying to convince herself my daughters could love their father after we left.
She said once, with coral lipstick covering her fine lips, that when her boys were young, she cleaned the house from top to bottom almost every evening—well into the early morning. It was the only time she had to herself. Nola had pointed to the refrigerator, saying that every evening I should wipe it with bleach. I didn’t tell her about the loneliness of evenings. The half-wants of needing her youngest son—the youngest of six— to be kind. She knew. Those forms of desires had kept me too long in the grey house.
My mother once told me—told me many times—that when she reached a certain age, she decided cleaning would no longer be the focus of her life. She would paint. Elizabeth would paint. Once she had painted a small rectangle picture of a vine-covered wishing well with elephants dancing in a circle—this was years before she gave up believing the house had to be spotless. This was when she first told me that someday she would be an artist. I lost that painting in a fire. The fire of several houses before.
When I’d spoken to Nola of loving her son, she told me I’d outgrow him. I’ll tell you a story, she said. When they’d lived in a small apartment near Banyans, a surf spot with lines and lines of cars decked with surf racks—with young surfers sitting on the hoods, watching as the waves rolled in—there had been a tsunami warning. She was at work when the warning came. But Nola counted numbers quickly, placing her work as an accountant carefully away. When she arrived home to pack their things, to find her youngest son, to find safety, she’d found, instead, an emptiness.
I wonder at the emptiness he left. I imagine Nola standing in the entrance of their small apartment. Five sons grown—only this remaining son. Had she called his name while searching the contents of their lives with worried eyes? Had she said in troubled notes, we must leave. Gather our things. Our keeping things. When her son’s voice failed to reply, Nola walked to his bedroom, pushing the door he’d left half open. There is an emptiness to homes when we leave. We leave behind a smell, a trail of who we are, flashes of our movements still hum in the air. Maybe Nola caught a glimpse of his passing shadow. He had come and went and left with his favorite pillow, posters, music, clothes, and a T.V. He’d left her behind.
My son, she said, you will outgrow him.
The day before I sold my daughters’ beds, I’d wrapped keeping items, placing some of the things I held in my tightly gripped fingers in black plastic bags for easy lifting. And then I stood in long spaces of the afternoon looking out the windows of the home I wanted to keep. The walls were blue. I’d painted them and imagined white curtains billowing out with the breeze. How carefully I’d chosen the color, asking Nola’s son if he wanted green. If he wanted yellow. If he wanted the sea as an expanse of color on our lived walls. I’d painted our daughters’ rooms. The eldest in pink then purple as she grew. The two younger, I painted their room in greens with vines and blooms on the east facing wall—two fairies on pink flowers.
I stepped away from the afternoon and the sight of the coffee fields below the west facing wall of our home. I don’t remember if the coffee trees bloomed that white upon white in the field next door. And I’ve lost the memory of how the ocean moves as a vast expanse below the slope of the hill where our house rested near the coffee field. What I remember is my fingers touching my daughters’ baby clothes—my fingers telling my eyes not to watch the sun or the trees or the winds around our home as I unpacked my daughters’ saved baby things.
Look only at these items. A peripheral vision. These were the clothes passed down from child to child and family to family from friend to friend—we women shared our children’s clothes, my community of women in Kona. We created a genealogy of growing young bodies in the fabric. These were the clothes I’d kept in brown cardboard boxes in the small crawl space above their bathroom for the next child. The space still smelled of the candles I sold in an attempt to pitch in, make more money for the family.
Not doing enough, never enough.
I placed my daughters’ folded baby clothes on the outside tables with our labeled things, asking which soft dress, shirt, or nightgown I should keep as a reminder of my children’s tenderness. Their clothes held the image of their first rollovers, crawls, and words woven into the fabric.
And in the morning, I asked with a soundless voice what I should and must give away as the early morning cars arrived, lining up along the gravel driveway and down the side of Kuakini highway. People stepped between the items I’d marked with different color stickers, touching books, plates, curtains. The prices of the things from our lives where marked from a dollar up.
I called about this, people said.
I’m here to pick up, people said.
We spoke on the phone about the things you’re selling, people said.
Your sign says, people said.
What will you take for this, people asked?
Will you go lower, other people asked?
My daughters’ father came. Perhaps he arrived in his greyed Toyota truck to make sure I wasn’t selling his items—the tools from the outdoor shed near the east facing wall of our home. There weren’t many of his items left in the house. They had gone with him months before, years before. I knew the gun he’d held flat in his palms when I spoke of leaving was no longer in the shed. Nola said she’d put him in jail herself, and he promised he’d given it away.
He’d return to the grey house from time to time, taking things he thought he’d need. He took my sleeping bag, bicycle, and one of my daughters’ baby rabbits, saying a girl, a women, someone he knew, needed these items. And from time to time he’d pull his truck into the gravel driveway, stepping outside the still-running engine to cut flowers from my garden. He wouldn’t come in. My daughters and I would watch with air held against fear in our lungs. Would he come inside? I knew my daughters half-wanted him to come in, walking through the door in his heavy work boots to give them playful words. But he’d back his grey truck down the driveway, a quick flash of music and engine as he changed gears down the highway
Once Nola sat with me at her kitchen counter in her apartment at Kona Shores. The apartment smelled of tuna casserole, washed laundry, and pool towels drying on the line in her enclosed lanai. I watched the patterns of the light on the table that were created from the overhead fixture. I’d walked from our house, the small house near Mongoose Lane that would eventually catch fire late one evening—the house before the yellow house, the house before the grey house. I came saying the words I could no longer hold before they left my distended mouth, breath, and body. I didn’t wipe the blood. I didn’t soften the image of his fists. I didn’t wipe the spit on my face.
I’ll put him in jail myself if he does it again.
We sat, she, telling stories of the two sides she held. She’d been married young. Her first husband wasn’t better than the second. Young with four sons and her husband is missing. She plays the radio in the kitchen as she feeds their children and places them in their bunkbeds, turning out lights and exhaling as she moves into her time. She washes the dishes and prepares a plate just in case her husband opens the door hungry from the day. The radio is a sound that finds the walls of her kitchen. She listens to music. Perhaps Nola sings the words of the songs she knows. Maybe she doesn’t give me this melody of her story. As the songs play and time shifts, she hears a voice speak on the radio. I imagine her, she slows her active hands as the voice, a baritone, speaks to her over the radio that keeps her company in her kitchen. Cleaning is a meditation, a means of release for Nola. She holds the dish rag in her hands that have slowed and then stopped as the man on the radio announces an accident and names a road Nola knows.
Maybe this is how it was then. Maybe the town is small enough or the time small enough that the names heard on the radio are all known. And when the word accident in conjunction with the nearby road is said over the kitchen radio the heart pumps the blood in hollow cones to the ears that fear the speaking of names that might be known and loved. The man and his radio voice speak out the names of the two in the car—the accident. Perhaps Nola inhales the worry of the sound of a familiar name. And she does, she hears the name she speaks to her sons as father. Nola hears the name of her husband. Nola hears the name of the woman. She understands.
Nola pauses here. Then she adds that when he came home, she stabbed him in the leg with a fork. I touch my fingers against the yellow counters of her small kitchen in Kona Shores as she resettles her stories. I still carry her stories, an interlace of words. Nola says, I had a breakdown. Four sons so close together. I had a break down. That is what they called it then. When I potty trained my sons, I used duct tape to keep them on potty—to get them to go. They knew they had to sit there until they did their business. So overcome. So close in age these boys of mine. I wore the cutest shift dresses when I was pregnant. That’s what we did then. We had the cutest clothes. When I had my sons, I had breast like melons. Not like your small breast. My second husband wasn’t better than the first. He wouldn’t give me money to run the house. He’d take my youngest to the bar every day. Six sons and a second husband no better than the first, Nola says, and her words are an intermingling of her histories—flashes of memory.
Nola had cancer. Nola had a heart attack. Nola had cancer. Nola had a heart attack, and I washed her short red hair in her kitchen sink at Kona Shores. Weak, she breathed slowly. She pointed to where they took a saphenous vein, a bypassing. I placed my hands in her short hair. Nola always signed my birthday cards with love mom. I washed her hair carefully with tepid water from the kitchen sink, running my fingers near the fine bones under her red hair.
When my mother died, Nola sat in the back seat with me as her son drove us home from SKEA (South Kona Education Association) where we held her funeral. My dad played music. My mom’s artwork was displayed with flowers. I spoke about what we leave behind. I spoke of my mother. We read from the Tibetan Book of the Dying, as my mother requested. People spoke of the greatness of her loss.
When my children’s father drove us home, I sat in the back seat, holding my daughter’s hand. I told Nola that when I was a child, my mother said that we would never have tea with the queen if we didn’t learn table manners. Nola answered, saying, The queen is just a person, too. I missed my mother more. I turned to watch the road move by. I knew we were driving home and I would have to make dinner. I knew I would have to continue, motherless. Nola touched my arm with her thin fingers. I didn’t turn to her hands. I kept my eyes on the moving side window. I knew she wore her white sweater over her small shoulders. I knew she pulled her sweater tighter against her thin arms. She said soft words that I could hear.
The things left behind in the small grey house the day I sold my daughters’ beds did not hold the memory of Nola’s son—him as a passing darkness, perhaps shadow, in and out of our lives. Three children, and he was our ghost. The paintings that remained on the walls of the small house, as I wrapped and folded our keeping things, were my mother’s. The waterfall, the coffee shack, the honu, the mermaid—all my mother’s art. The photos of my daughters were mine, taken with my hands and eyes near the smell of plastic and film from my Canon EOS while they sat up, crawled, walked against the floorboards of this small house.
Briefly, that morning as people lined the road to buy our lives, when Nola’s son stepped from his truck, I wanted him to say something kind. Perhaps I remembered the feeling of wanting him to return. The feeling of return had always been a desire for something easier between us. But I couldn’t say, Why are you here? I fear. By then, I knew about keeping silence between us. I knew the certainty of leaving.
He went to the kitchen with its peeling tiled and painted floors. The floors were a reminder of projects never completed—some newly placed wood laminate boards, some blue-painted wood floors, and some floors were a remainder of the family that had lived there before. That family had left jello, a strawberry color stain as a slash against the white inside of the refrigerator. The man who sold us the house told stories of his wife who left. He cried when speaking of his two sons. Maybe he held a cigarette and looked down at the ground when he cried about the woman who left him and his two boys. He stopped crying when he spoke of the woman he pulled from the car that caught fire below the grey house. Our Honalo house—Nalo, lost, vanished, concealed, hidden, forgotten, missing; to lose. Nalo, fly. A crash, a cry, what else led him out on the highway in the night? Was the car a crackling sound, a smell of oil and fear as he ran down the driveway and out onto the expanse of road?
Once, when a woman came to value the small grey house so my children’s father could sell it to his drug dealer who lived up Sunset subdivision, she said she had heard about how my children’s father had pulled a woman from a burning car below our house.
It was the man before. Not him. The man who owned the house before. My children’s father wouldn’t have. And I remembered him driving the long road from Hapuna to home in Honalo. We passed an accident. He wouldn’t stop. Someone else will stop, he said. He wouldn’t stop, and I watched the Kona sunset orange and red as the we moved beyond the cars pulled to the side of the road to help the people in the car.
That man and two sons who lived in the grey house before us—that family left behind women’s pink razors in the bathroom shower. As we prepared to leave, I considered leaving a letter to the house, a letter to the family after us. I’d tell them about my daughters. I’d say they called the tree in the yard our family tree. I’d tell the next family about my daughters’ voices that were somehow engrained in the walls of this small house. I’d tell the house that I’d dream of it for years—dreams of longing. Dreams of hiding in its walls as strangers came to remove us. Dreams of return. I didn’t write this letter.
We bought the grey Honalo house with the desire to normalcy—to home. The construction of wife (mother), children, home, and dog. Before we followed the realtor into the gravel covered yard, I’d dreamt the house. In the dream, the walls slid down, a wave of greyed blue—all flowing toward two planes that found the sides of buildings, and I heard the cry of engines and smell the falling concrete.
I didn’t speak of my dream. And I didn’t speak of the tests when we went to see our future home, our grey house in Honalo, before Kainaliu—four months pregnant with my youngest daughter and the test say something could/might/may be wrong, triple mark. I go to specialists. They measure her on machines, gel against the arc of the world of my stomach. They take a long needle, invasive, into the sack—salt tongue water this language my daughter and I speak. I don’t look away. I watch—7.5 long and 0.8 wide an amniocentesis. .22-gauge spinal needle, and I speak to my water-grown daughter. The needle glides through maternal abdominal and uterine barriers, searching for pockets of amniotic fluid—fetal cells in liquid, amnion and fetal skin. And we are a vastness of ocean, my daughter and I with exchanged tongues we tell each other stories. The doctor’s voice tells stories of my waters. They are rich, full, high level. He says this is good. I see my waters as a root, a stream, a lineage of fluid. I tell my daughter as she floats and grows in my ocean of her grandmother, my mother. I tell her of her sisters.
Your grandmother, I say, packed our things in black plastic bags. I don’t know what she chose to carry with her. I don’t remember if she asked us what we could live with and without. But she carried the weight of our lives in black plastic bags. She hid our lives in the bushes at the end of our driveway in Humboldt, California. I remember the smell of the earth, the dirt, in Northern California. It is the smell of deer’s feet and a bear’s breath—a breath of words as a ghost bear spoke to me at night when I slept in the bunkbed with my brother. The smell of California is wildflowers in colors I’ve forgotten attached to words such as foxgloves and poppy. It is the smell of the well I fell into, not down. I floated, and your Uncle Zain, a small child too, fished me out of the darkness of water with his free hands. The smell of Northern California is the water the streamed down my crying face.
Your grandmother, baby—and I say my mother’s name, Elizabeth—hid us across an ocean. Salt water, salt tongues, salt winds. I speak to my child of the women in our family. Your great-grandmother, Constance Sarah Axe, held pills in the pockets of her dress in case the Germans came. She understood she’d rather choose her life than die with Nazis. Your great-great grandmother was Lydia Martha Castle, baby. I know her name. Your grandmother, baby, the grandmother on your father’s side—she left her life in Cedarburg, Wisconsin. She’d had six children—all boys—your father is the youngest. She came to build a new life. Your sisters, baby, are waiting to whisper your name in your new born ears. I am your mother, baby. I hold you in my salt filled waters.
When we moved in the grey house—I am unpacking in Honalo, moving couches and nailing paintings on the wall when the nurse from the doctor’s office calls to say the tests are good—and good is a ring of silver thread that encircles my daughter and me. She asks if I want to know the sex, speaking words of double X. I knew the name of my daughter. I say her name, and she hears my voice through the measureless salt waters that speak the languages of our fearless bodies.
The day I sold my daughters’ beds, I didn’t follow my children’s father into the house when he pulled his greyed truck into our gravel driveway. I stood in the yard, providing change. This is my mom’s he said, coming out the open front door and pointing to the roasting pan he held between his hands. I’m taking this.
Nola had taught me to cook for him in that pan. She’d talked to me about rubbing salt, pepper, oil, and poultry seasoning on the flesh of the freshly washed turkey. She’d showed me how to bind the legs, set the temperature, watch the bird through the window of the oven—never disturbing the bird too much with opened oven doors.
When Nola’s boyfriend, Jesse, had shot the man who owed him money for the rubbish business he sold, she had asked me over and over why her son, my children’s father, hadn’t told her Jesse’s plan. He knew. He knew. She said, I could have stopped it. I could have talked to Jesse. The man Jesse killed had two daughters. Two daughters and no father, now. Why didn’t my son tell me what Jesse planned? Why did he help Jesse? Why didn’t he say something? I could have done something. I could have. Why didn’t he speak to me?
The day before Jesse shot the man in Old Industrial Area, he’d driven his small red car into our gravel driveway and we sat in the heat of the day on the back steps of our grey house and he fed my daughters oranges he brought in a mesh bag. He spoke on their beauty. Once and a while, knowing Nola’s son left us without, Jesse stopped by the house with food or to fill the gas tank of my car. And once and a while, knowing her son left us without, Nola would stop by the grey house and remind me she was my second mother, slipping money under a cup on the counter of the kitchen of our small grey house in Honalo. And once and awhile I remembered the expanse of sea below our walls.
After Jesse killed the man who owed him money for the business, Nola cried on the phone. I spoke with your son, I said. He had called late in the evening, early in the morning, saying, Now you know. I told you something terrible would happen. I couldn’t tell you. I couldn’t tell you. This is why. This is why. And I knew he spoke of the imagine of his body shaking on the bedroom floor, sweating with his glass pipe. He wanted to give me reasons for his absence. He wanted to find a reason for his drug-filled body. And I knew the sight of steel wool and baking soda in his thick fingers. And I knew the feel of his skin flushed with crack cocaine. And I repeated over and over, You gave Jesse the gun. You knew. You knew. Why? Why?
Don’t tell, he said over and over. Don’t tell about the gun. They’ll never know. Jesse promised to say he bought if off a fisherman. Don’t tell. Don’t tell. This is why. This is why I am the way I am.
After the people had finished roaming through the household goods, my children’s toys, my clothes, I didn’t tell my children about Northern California as we left our small grey home in Honalo, the place before Kainaliu. I didn’t say, when I was five—perhaps pausing to allow them to imagine their mother as a child—my mother packed our clothes in plastic bags and hid them in the bushes at the end of our driveway, waiting for my father to visit his girlfriend so we could escape. We left, staying with a family friend. I don’t remember their names. I remember they had a teepee in the backyard. We slept there on straw-filled floors. The woman, I don’t remember her name, made a gingerbread house, and I knew beauty and wonder as we left my father.
Rain Wright was raised on Hawai‘i Island in a redwood house in Hōnaunau between Filipino Clubhouse Road and Telephone Exchange Road in a multi-artistic family. Rain finds many of her stories by mapping her memories along Māmalahoa Highway to the markers that people use to give directions on Hawai‘i Island. Rain’s work has appeared in Hawai’i Review, Mud Season Review, Connotations Press: An Online Artifact, Madras Magazine, Summit Magazine, and Hawaiʻi Pacific Review. Rain is a Ph.D. candidate at University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, where she teaches writing. Rain has a deep love for the ocean. She feels it cures everything.