My husband’s grandmother, featured in my new novel THE ALOHA SPIRIT, was an amazing woman. She loved to laugh, and she loved family. Her home was always open to anyone who wanted to be there. I know that if I ever arrived for dinner with ten strangers, she would make room at the table for all of them. That spirit of giving and loving has always embodied the aloha spirit for me, especially after learning of her early life.
Carmen was born on Kauai in 1915. All that remains of her birthplace now is the U.S. Post Office in Mekaweli. Her parents had emigrated from Spain. In Hawaii, Carmen’s father was a dairyman. She had an older brother, but her mother passed away in childbirth with her third child. When Carmen was still small, her father moved the family to Honolulu. Sometime after that, he decided to take his son and go to the mainland to look for work. He left Carmen with a large Hawaiian family. Her children and grandchildren were never told much about her time with this family, only that she was treated poorly.
As soon as she could, Carmen went to live with her friend, Rachel Galedrige. Rachel had a lot of sons, so Carmen became somewhat of a sister and a daughter. The two women remained friends for the rest of their lives.
When she was sixteen, Carmen married Manuel Medieros, a man she’d met on the beach at Hanauma Bay. Manuel was the youngest child of Joe and Jessie Medeiros, emigrants from Portugal who had eleven children. Joe had left his wife and family, but Jessie owned four houses in the Punch Bowl area of Honolulu. The entire family gathered at Jessie’s house for lunch every day. What a raucous crowd that must have been! Carmen, though, had lived with a large family before. From the Hawaiians, she no doubt learned Hawaiian superstitions and customs just like she learned Catholic superstitions and customs from her husband’s family.
Carmen’s life still wasn’t settled. Her husband had a good job as a power plant engineer for Hawaii Electric, but he had a violent temper. Carmen’s oldest daughter says Manuel abused his wife and became an alcoholic. By the age of 23, Carmen had three daughters. As a Catholic in the 1930s, she could not divorce. Help came from another source.
Earl Rodrigues was her nephew. His mother was Manuel’s oldest sister, which made him close in age to Carmen. He teased her by calling her Auntie, which she said made her feel old. Earl had an irrepressible sense of humor. He was a free spirit who often cut school to surf Waikiki, climbing palm trees to get coconuts to eat, or buying pipikaula, Hawaiian beef jerky. Earl protected Carmen and her daughters, and she fell in love with him.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, Earl was at work as a shipfitter. Carmen and the rest of the family watched from their home in the hills of Honolulu as the harbor burned. Carmen must have been frantic for Earl as well as scared for her daughters’ safety. Six months after the attack, Carmen and her daughters left Honolulu for California. They zigzagged across the Pacific Ocean on a Navy ship. Arriving in San Francisco, they lived for a time with Carmen’s brother and his wife. Manuel sold their things in Hawaii and joined them in California a few months later. Those months as a single mother, without the support of the extended family she had in Honolulu, must have been hard. Even so, Carmen must have learned she could manage independently.
Manuel, Carmen, and the girls settled in San Jose. Manuel returned to his drinking and flitted through jobs. After the war ended, family from Hawaii visited constantly. Earl’s parents came to visit with Earl and his siblings. Earl was once more where he belonged, protecting the woman he loved. He built himself an apartment in back of Carmen’s house when the rest of his family returned to Hawaii. They must have discussed a future together, but both were still bound by her marriage vows to Manuel in a Catholic church. Manuel drifted in and out of their lives like another visitor.
I’m going to stop there because to tell you any more would ruin the novel for you! The basic outline of Carmen’s life is all I had to go on when I wrote The Aloha Spirit. My goal was to explore how she could endure constant setbacks yet still emerge with a heart full of aloha. I hope you enjoy her story.
Author of Under the Almond Trees
Coming soon from She Writes Press: The Aloha Spirit
Author Website: ulleseit.com
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