On Thanksgiving I called my mom. It was a day early for her in Hawaii but I wanted to call her all the same. She told me that she bought some hair dye and that tomorrow she was going to visit my father then dye her hair. I smiled.
We don’t have family traditions. I mean there’s my younger brother, my mom and I and sometimes my mom’s ex who I refer to as my step-dad out of convenience, but we aren’t a big family. On Thanksgiving we sometimes cooked at home and sometimes didn’t. On Christmas we sometimes had a tree and sometimes didn’t.
We don’t open that one gift on Christmas Eve from grandma or start with the stockings or eat a particular dish or have those traditions that my friends families have. Except today I realized we do have one. We went to Punchbowl Cemetery to see my father.
And I still miss him with the same tears as if he died yesterday and not 32 years ago. I don’t know why. Shouldn’t these feelings fade with time?
Sometimes we would stop by Chinatown to buy flowers and other times we would hit the local grocer. I don’t know if I’d stressed out so much as get agitated over what flowers to choose. It’s important to pick the ones that will last the longest in the Hawaiian sun. The ones that are native to the islands are the ones that look and last the best.
Punchbowl is a dead volcano and from Honolulu we drive up a very steep hill, take a right at the light then follow the windy road through old top heavy houses that would look ordinary in any other place, but here I know it’s expensive. We pass a school and then veer off a road that you need to know is there, up another hill, a left, then right and we are on the driveway to the cemetery.
The view of the city and Pacific below is stunning because it’s Hawaii and because it’s my childhood home. Then we enter these tall wrought iron gates and we have arrived into what I think is the prettiest cemetery. It’s quite large and seeing it grow over the years feels natural and a little queer too.
The roads are lined with old large trees with outstretched wings that provide shade and protection. It’s a bit of a maze so you need to know where you are going, and we know where we are going. To the top of the “bowl” – not where the monument where the lady in white is, but to the right where the old bomb shelters were/are.
My dad is not far from one of those old grand trees which I like. He’s also near many gravestones marked “unknown” from WWII. Unknown 22 is not 22 unknown bodies but 22 unknown body parts. As a child, my brother and I would walk carefully around the invisible boundaries of caskets unseen and as we got older, read the nearby gravestones with interest and more understanding.
Date of birth and death aren’t the only things on the headstones but religion and what war they served in. Punchbowl is a military cemetery for servicemen and their families. My father’s headstone says Catholic, as does his dog tags, but my father wasn’t really Catholic. Grandma said he changed religions with the frequency of hoping to find one that fit.
I find it so fascinating that you try on these different outfits and whatever one you are wearing at the time of death is the one you are stuck with. Do you know what I mean?
We park the car then one of us goes and digs up the upside down metal vase that sits just below his headstone. Usually we have to rip up the grass that has grown over it and twist it off, as it fits like a jigsaw piece or blender we have to click into place. Across the street is a spigot where we rinse the vase with the raised gold Christian/Catholic cross on it, cut the flowers and fill the vase.
My mother, brother and I must have created quite the sight sitting or standing around my father’s grave. But I somehow took comfort in seeing other grieving families, pairs, people and smaller children walking around the cemetery. Isn’t that strange?
I remember when I was walking around Ala Moana and found these little painted river pebbles scattered thoughtfully (?) around the mall. I think there were words on them too, like “Love” and “Jesus”. There were so many of them that I started to pocket them and later I placed them around my father’s headstone.
The next time we visited, they were gone. As was the picture I drew of him for Father’s Day. A class project that I had to do even though I told my teacher I didn’t have a father. She thought about it for a moment after I whispered, “He’s dead.” She said, “Draw him anyway.” That was in the 6th grade and I imagined the picture blew away even though I weighed it down with rocks.
Before we left Punchbowl, my mom always told us to tell my father something, and since I can’t be at his grave now I will write instead. . .Your son had another child on Thanksgiving Day. A girl named Molly. So you have three grandchildren! The boys are handsome and bright. Everyone is healthy and happy and I’m still in Thailand. I love you and miss you. I love you and miss you. I love you and miss you.