Sunday, November 28, 2010

Listening to Agnes

[Congratulations to Bill & Judie Fernandez for their runner up entry in our 2010 Creative Competition.]

Three a.m. and I cannot sleep. Giving up, I tiptoe out of the bedroom and settle onto the koa framed sofa. Bill’s mother, Agnes, bought the sofa and two matching koa wood-framed chairs when she and Bill’s father married and moved into her house in 1927. I settled down onto the dark green fern and flowery-patterned kettle cloth, my head resting on old quilt-patterned pillows, and looked slowly around the small room. Why couldn’t I sleep?

A gecko chirped from the kitchen. I could hear gentle waves washing ashore nearby. The moonless sky was a deep black, cradling the house. Sounds drifted in through the windows, palm branches rustling in the breeze. The soft air soothed me. Living on an island, nature caresses you, something I miss when away from the islands.

This really is a charming place, I thought, as my eyes roved slowly around the room. The wood slatted walls and ceiling, the dark wood trim at the top and bottom of the walls framing the room, the built-in, dark wood, china cabinet. Inside the cabinet, sit the purple tea cups, the etched red glass ice cream dishes and matching plates, the old ukulele, a couple of hand-made lauhala hats with handmade feather lei circling the crowns, treasures once part of the life of Bill’s mother, Agnes. I imagined her opening the glass doors, which didn’t have rusty hinges then, and serving a special mango ice cream for dessert after the Sunday duckling dinner. I suspect Bill always wanted seconds. In the kitchen, we still use the tall, glass-door cabinets from the 1920s. One of the cabinets has wire mesh shelves and screened openings at top and bottom for air circulation. Bill calls it a ‘cooler’ as the air cools the fruits and vegetables stored there. On the wall next to that cabinet, adjacent to the back door, thick, stiff, electrical wires enter the house through big holes drilled into the wood and then run down into the fuse box. Geckoes must consider it their private entrance. Since the house was constructed with only single walls, the wires could not be covered up. So we painted them white. Agnes’ house had indoor plumbing but not every house in the neighborhood was so fancy.

Agnes must have loved every inch of this two bedroom cottage. She paid for it with her pineapple cannery earnings after saving for years. Required to help pay for the education of her brothers at a high school in Honolulu, and no high school on the island for her to attend, she was sent to work at age fifteen in the cannery. Her long hours produced meager pay. But with several siblings, there was little possibility of further education in those days, especially for a young woman. Life was difficult, and money was hard to come by despite her father’s job at a plantation as a luna, supervisor. She married late for those days, in her thirties. Not for her, ala ala, lazy boys. She had made up her mind that she wouldn’t marry a man unless he earned two hundred dollars a month. Given the limited opportunities on the island, most men worked in the fields of pineapple or sugar cane. Long hours, hard work, poor pay. No, Agnes wanted a more secure life. So she worked and saved her money.

In the early 1920s, a developer named Sanborn bought several acres of marsh and sand dunes in the Waipouli ("dark water") Stream area to the south of tiny Kapa’a and built a few dozen homes. Mr. Sanborn thought the area was perfect for a suburban development of homes on large lots. It was here that Agnes bought not just one, but two, of the homes when the developer struggled with hard times. On her wedding day, she and her husband moved into one of the houses. She must have been pretty proud.

The Waipouli neighborhood was settled by many of the immigrant workers who completed their labor contracts at the plantations and soon the streets became playgrounds. The sugar train came puffing right through the middle of the area on its way to the refinery to the south, its squat cars stuffed with harvested cane, pieces dropping off as it trundled along. A favorite game for the kids was running alongside the slow-moving train and pulling out a long piece of cane to suck on it. "Cane! Cane!" the kids would yell, coming frighteningly close to the steel wheels. When they would grab a piece and pull, it sometimes dragged them along for several feet until it either came loose or you couldn’t keep up with the train. The bigger kids heightened the danger by playing ‘chicken’ and would stand on the narrow bridge over the canal as the train approached, jumping off seconds before the train could strike them. One of the small boys called the train "puffagiggey" because it made that sound. It may seem strange that family homes were built surrounding the train tracks, but that’s the way it was.

Once we made the decision to move back to Bill’s home on Kaua’i, Bill and I had had many discussions about how to fit into this small, two bedroom house with only one bathroom and little storage space. After a conversation with a contractor and hearing ideas for expanding the home, we spent hours talking about it. Tonight, at dinner, we finally concluded there was little economic sense in just remodeling a termite-ridden old house with sloping floors and decided to tear it down and rebuild. The big lot allowed for a nice home and we could add a second story with a balcony facing the ocean. Windows in the rear would face the mountains and allow breezes to move through the upper rooms, a natural air conditioning. Think of the storage room we would have, the larger living room and kitchen, all modernized! So our thinking went, each comment cementing our decision.

Now, at three a.m., looking around Agnes’ home, its charm, its old island style, I was overcome with sadness. Perhaps we could put wood slatting on the walls of the new house instead of dry wall. Perhaps on the ceiling too, just like this one. And we have to keep the dark wood trim at the floor and ceiling. And the china cabinet. Oh-oh. Must try to save it and reinstall it in the new house. But what am I saying? If all of this is so hard to let go of, perhaps we made the wrong decision? How can I tell Bill I have changed my mind, if I have? We have gone so far as to sketch plans and get a rough cost estimate. Is it wrong to reverse the decision now? Will he be disappointed?

A deep yawn convinced me to try to fall asleep again. As I leaned over to turn out the light, I admired the reflection of the light on the wooden walls and ceiling. I will miss this charm, I thought, and headed back to bed.

After our morning ritual of coffee and watching the waves, Bill and I walked down the street. He described again how the developer had planted three rows of ironwood trees between the street and the beach, providing a wind screen for the homes. Under the trees, sweet-smelling night-blooming cereus would send its fragrance into the dreams of sleeping families. The beach, a few feet below the road level, was a perfect place for keiki, kids, because the low upthrust rock reef prevented big waves from knocking you down and kept the water level no more than knee deep. No worry your little one would get swept out. A neighbor placed a wooden dock out in deeper water for the bigger kids to use for diving. Bill learned to swim at this beach and built tin canoes with his friends. Later, he would snorkel there and once even met a small shark swept in by big waves.

As we walked along enjoying the morning and watching the clouds drift up to the mountains, Bill asked if I still wanted to tear down the house and build a new one. Surprised by his question, I paused. Was this the time to tell him my feelings during the night? If he really wants to do this, is it right for me to change my mind? Then I told him how I had awakened at three a.m., sat in the living room and began to feel sad about tearing down Agnes’ home.

Bill broke into a smile and laughed. "I woke up about four AM and had the same feelings! I cannot tear it down. My mother bought it with her pineapple cannery earnings which was such an unusual thing for a young woman to do in the 1920s. It’s small but so charming. Shall we forget about tearing it down and just remodel?"


The rest of our walk was spent describing what we would like to do: add a big porch, a laundry room and bathroom, expand the bedroom. We also agreed that it just might have been Agnes who woke up each of us with a message in the soft breeze: "Please don’t tear down my home."

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