The Picture in the Corner

I have a black and white copy of this photo,  the monotones mute the drama taking place in this picture. It sits quietly in my restaurant, and whispers to get your attention.

It’s a picture of a volcano erupting.  Specifically, it catches the 1959 eruption of Kilauea, in Kapoho. In the foreground is a row of buildings, the kind you might find in any sugar cane town in rural Hawaii. On one of the buildings is a sign that reads, “Y Nakamura Store”.

It was my grandfather’s store, a general store where there was a back table for the men of the town to pull up with a beer or two, play a hand of cards and discuss the latest current events, such as recently granted statehood to Hawaii.  It was where the women congregated to get household supplies, chat each other up, and reaffirm the social hierarchy of their clan.

Kapoho was like any other plantation town scattered along the dirt and macadam roads of this place. Everyone knew everyone else. Kids that misbehaved didn’t get away with it for long, as the news traveled along the invisible telegraph wires strung up between houses. Racially divided by ethnic origin, and yet homogeneously Hawaiian in food, spirit and culture, it, like every other plantation town, was the petri dish for the New Hawaiian Blend. Places like this helped blur the lines between each immigration wave that washed ashore here, until, like grains of sand, they became part of that cultural beachhead. Individual, yet integral to a greater whole.

Madame Pele, our jealous Fire Goddess, reclaimed that land that Kapoho occupied, leaving untouched my grandfather’s store. So much beauty, so much destruction living together in such close proximity.

Did Madame Pele bless my grandfather by sparing his store, or did she curse him, by taking away his customer base? Is the glass half empty or is the glass half full?

My grandfather, being resourceful, and probably more thrifty than anything else, took the lumber from his now-vacant store and used it to rebuild his home, a few miles down a pothole-infested dirt road. Curse or blessing, he was determined to live near the ocean, near the town where he grew up. Madame Pele may have tried to block the way, but he viewed it as a speed bump, an opportunity to turn in another direction.

Nothing remained of the town or store, except the sign.  For years, we would drive by the spot on our way to Grandmother’s House, and see the Y Nakamura Store sign, bent and abandoned on a cinder bulwark in the middle of a lava desert. We would beg my father to retell us the story again, of how the volcano erupted in someone’s cucumber field, or was it a papaya plantation?  The tale has morphed as the years have passed, like an old tapestry, with some new stitches sewn in, some old ones unraveling.

I don’t know what happened to that sign.  It may have been scavenged, it may be have sold.  One day, it was simply no longer there.

About ten years ago, I went back to Kapoho, to find the spot where the store once stood, where the sign lay as a tired guardian to a piece of our personal history.  I couldn’t find it.  Nature, in her rampantly tropical way, had covered the place with new growth. I had lost the compass to my childhood memories, everything covered in vines and sapling trees.  Even the pitted dirt road that lead to my grandfather’s house by the ocean was now gated off, part of a sequestered exclusive beach community. The bumpy road under an arbor canopy of trees that brought to mind evil forests in fairy tales was now a smooth paved affair that no longer tortured a car’s suspension or caused your rib cage to jostle into your chin if you drove faster than ten miles an hour down it.

It, like me, had grown up.

I keep this picture in my restaurant now, to remind myself of where I came from, to reassure myself that no matter where I am going and the obstacles I face, there is always another path to take, things grow back and curses can be blessings.

I wonder if my grandfather sees this picture, sees me. I hope so.




2 Responses to The Picture in the Corner

  1. Lisa,

    Today, my wife and I stopped in for lunch at the gnocchi bar. I jokingly said to you that we wanted to order sushi (at Momiji), but the restaurant was still closed. We walked a few steps and I saw the Gnocchi Bar. I told my wife lets have gnocchi. Although she was reluctant, we entered your restaurant.

    On our way home, my wife mentioned how delicious our mushroom gnocchi dish was. I agreed completely, and felt happy that we ate at your restaurant. It was a blessing that Momiji was closed.

    I liked the picture of your grandfathers store with the volcano erupting in the background. Later I read the story behind that picture. It brought back memories of my childhood visits to my grandparents place in Hilo. My parents sent my older brother and I to Hilo to spend our summers with our grandparents. Walking in the pasture picking mountain apples and guava, and carrying a homemade slingshot in my back pocket, those were the good old days!

    Like you, I don’t think I could locate my grandfathers place today. But the great memories will never be forgotten.

    We’ll be back for gnocchi again. Thanks for establishing good new memories.

  2. Thank YOU for coming in! Keep those napkins with your thoughts jotted down. That’s the stuff that makes life interesting.

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