Auntie Bertha


Yesterday I ran into Auntie Bertha outside of the senior center. She was excited to tell me, as she cinched up her black oversized raincoat, that they give free food-- even milk!--to seniors every lunch, so she gets on the bus and comes over every day. Why not?
She's hip.
She's so hip, she doesn't care that she's hip. She's almost 80 years old. She wears knee-length batik printed skirts to church and heavy bright jewelry. She waves off compliments-- "Oh, my daughter in law gave it to me."
She came to the Halloween party in soft yellow leather with fringes and squash blossom jewelry, and chunky turquoise and silver rings on her bony hands, with her long gray hair in braids. She was stunning-- small and compact and content sitting in the metal folding chairs while her great, and great-great children ran around her in costume. "I'm part Indian" she explained. A half-Indian sailor came to Hawaii and stayed, married into her Hawaiian family tree.
I run into her almost every week at the farmer's market. She is usually sitting in state in her son's tent where he sells Hawaiian medicinal plants and spices-- huge bright orange bags of turmeric (Olena). Sometimes she is banging kapa-- smashing the sinews and fibers with a wooden mallet over an wet anvil, and layering them until they form a supple thick cloth.
Once in choir she sat next to me and I noticed a flash of vivid tattoo on the back of her calves. Just a few years ago she got the second one-- a swirling fiery face: the Goddess Pele. Auntie Bertha's Hawaiian namesake. But we all call her Auntie Bertha. It seems safer.
Yesterday in the rain she told me about going to Tahiti to visit her cousins when the Hokulea sailed across the ocean using traditional Polynesian navigation. She said canoes from all over Polynesia came pouring onto the beaches, and the people all went down to the beaches to sing and play drums and greet them. And one day as she was driving around the island, she saw a group of Ki`i, arranged in a clump, just like the navigational heiau here along the Kohala coast.
She brought the car to a halt -- she just had to find out what it was. So she went and asked the people around there, and sure enough, it was for navigating. The Ki`i all pointed right back to their sisters on the Hawaiian coast. The navigators memorize their placement, and their connection to the stars that pass overhead, then they set out into the deep with that arrangement burned into their minds.
I told her that we went to the opening ceremony for the canoes last year, when they set out for Micronesia with the Alingano Maisu for Papa Mau. A big crowd came-- walked a mile from the road down a scruffy path, with reporters and friends and the crew. As the kumu chanted, a double rainbow appeared over the crowd. The kumu led the sailors and navigators up the mountain to the heiau. We could see his white draped back all the way up the cliff.
Auntie Bertha said, "do you know what they do up there?" I didn't.
"They turn the people into fish."
That way the ocean, the waves, the wind, the fish-- it will all work together with them. They become creatures of the sea.

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