I was born on Mothers’ Day, the much valued daughter after two sons. Mothers’ Day has always had a resonance to my little family. It is a terribly long distance from the Hawaiian Island that ‘Iokepa and I call home to the places where my sons and mother call home – six thousand miles to be exact. But this year, by happenstance, we landed in Baltimore (between a book signing in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware and a scheduled speech in New York City). I was able to share Mothers’ Day across three generations with my ninety-nine-year-old mother and my thirty-year-old, first-born son.
Here is the gift that gave me prodigious joy. On Mothers’ Day, my daughter-in-law Elizabeth and I browsed plant nurseries in search of the basics for her first flower garden. Her garden is confined to the tiny front and back yard of an inner city neighborhood. We took out our spades, our imaginations, and our fingers and caressed that tiny yard into a thriving bounty of blossom and color. I can’t think of another activity that would have given me greater satisfaction.
Elizabeth is a most accomplished woman – a scientist at Johns Hopkins University who travels to Africa on her public health projects with the frequency that most of us attach to trips to the mall. Though her grandmother in Tennessee was, and is still, an adept gardener, my daughter-in-law never had the opportunity to plunge hands in the soil herself. She was determined to change that.
For most of my adult life, hands in the soil were the daily antidote to seven or eight hours constructing words on a page. It was the other half of my life – the part that took me from head to heart, from computer screen to dirt under my nails. It was how I unwound after the cerebral search for the right word, and searched instead for the right bulb in the right spot. I pulled my young sons along the garden edges: “Tell me the name.” I’d remind them daily: “peonies…day lilies…rhododendron…azaleas, tulips, iris, daffodils.”
But my years in Hawai’i have been what ‘Iokepa prefers to call “house-less” in favor of the more pejorative “homeless.” So I have lived upon the most fertile soil on Earth in a warm and tropical climate – and I have been, for the first time in my adult life, without a garden.
Within that paradox lies the story of the Native Hawaiian people, God’s stewards of these isolated Islands. The kanaka maoli knew for a fact that land could not be the property of man, only his or her responsibility to care for.
But then their guests arrived – Americans and Europeans, who thought in terms quite alien to the Native Hawaiians, who thought in terms of mine and yours, who assumed responsibility primarily for turning fertile land into profit, and who, most of all, forgot to be grateful.
So I use this Mothers’ Day opportunity to thank my daughter-in-law for the reminder: that little garden we worked together last Sunday was a gift to both of us. To thank, as well, my husband’s people: they live to remind us that ka ‘āina, the land, can be valued without being priced, can be lived with instead of upon, can be shared without being owned. All of this costs us no more than gratitude.