The Black Dictionary

black dictionaryWhen I was a child, I was considered smart simply because I had good grades, like top-of-the-class good grades from elementary through high school. College introduced me to the latter letters of school grades, but that is another story.

My dad was proud of me. He was born in the Philippines, orphaned at fourteen, then raised by Catholic nuns. At nineteen, he immigrated to Hawaii to labor in sugar fields. He often reminded me he had “only a third grade education.”

Until I was fifteen, Dad worked two jobs. He cleaned hotel rooms at the iconic Royal Hawaiian Hotel from eight to four, came home to a rushed dinner, then drove back to Waikiki to wait on tables from six to ten. One of my favorite tasks was to count coins and crumpled bills the next morning. His tip money reeked of cigarette smoke.

One Saturday afternoon, when I was in the fourth grade, I was loudly complaining about my homework on finding definitions and using the words in a sentence. I normally loved this kind of homework. Made me feel smart. However, in this assignment, I could not find a couple of words in an old dictionary that no one used except me. I was almost in tears. He asked me what I needed, grabbed some money from the tip bowl, and left.

A couple of hours later, he returned with a purchase from the now-defunct Honolulu Book Store. He had me sit at the kitchen table and presented a big black dictionary. “Is this what you need?”

Even as a nine year old, I knew he had done something very special and courageous. He drove to a bookstore that he would never normally visit and, in his Filipino-accented broken English, he shyly asked a store clerk about dictionaries. He purchased this book with his hard-earned tip money. When I told him this dictionary was perfect and gave him a big hug, he smiled and said, “Now go do your homework.”

A few weeks later, he asked me for a favor. Would I teach him how to multiply and divide? I had proudly shown him my graded math tests and he thought I could help him. He had to fill out tip reports at the restaurant, and did not know how to calculate averages. He also wanted to see how much money he might make a week if he could earn $50 a night.

We spent a lot of time at the kitchen table. He was a good student and learned his multiplication table quickly. Division was a challenge, but he managed to calculate simple equations. I came up with math problems and graded his homework. These were light-hearted moments. We both laughed. We both learned.

When my dad died, I asked my mom for two things. The black dictionary and his bolo knife. Both sit in my living room. I will tell you about the knife some other day.

My Dad Used to Talk to the TV

tvYup, he told Lawrence Welk that the Lennon Sisters should sing in every other number, and told Walter Brennan he needed to do a better job in protecting the McCoys. He told Walter Cronkite that Americans were bullies in the Vietnam War, and let Lyndon Johnson know that lives were being wasted in a stupid war. He let Vic Morrow know that he was the hero in Combat, and informed Sergeant Joe Friday when a clue was right under is nose.

Dad liked serious shows, like Gunsmoke and Route 66. He disapproved of comedies. When Dick Van Dyke and Carol Burnett came on, Dad shifted his conversation to me and Mom. He told us how silly they were and that watching them was a waste of time. Somehow, Red Skelton escaped his critique.

Ed Sullivan was hit or miss for Dad. He liked Louis Armstrong; the Beatles were definitely out. Elvis was okay as long as he sang gospel music. Forget the pelvic gyrations.

Dad made it through the third grade. He was orphaned at 14, and was raised by Catholic nuns in the town of Narvacan in the Ilocos Sur province of the Philippines. In 1946, at 19 years old, he immigrated to Hawaii to work on the plantation in Lanai City in Hawaii. There was no real city on that tiny island and plantation life was not his idea of America, so he moved to the main island of Oahu. He worked as a housekeeper at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki. When he retired in 1975, he was the longest standing employee — 30 years.

To put my brother and me through parochial schools, he took on a second job as a waiter in Waikiki restaurants. He’d work from 8AM to 4PM at the hotel, eat a quick dinner, change and go off to his restaurant job at 5:45. He’d come home after 11PM, smelling of his customers’ cigarette smoke. On weekends, I used to stay up and help him count his tips.

When Dad was home, the tv was his to command. My brother and I were the “remote control,” and we took turns changing the channel. There were only three.

The television was my Dad’s binoculars to the world. He watched the news whenever he could, and knew the events and capitals of many countries. He was very critical of the United States in foreign affairs, and yet when I was a teenage peacenik, he chided me for not appreciating my own country. He remained a citizen of the Philippines throughout his life.

The television was also his main companion after he retired and my Mom continued to work. He’d call me at work just to chat, and I could hear Judge Judy in the background. I could only imagine what he told her.

One day in my office, he asked me, “What is dot com?” I did a brief tour on my computer and he was amazed. “Who’s doing all that? . . . How do you know that’s true? . . . Can people see me?”

He was flabbergasted when we Instant-Messaged my son Marco. “You mean he’s sitting in front of his computer right now? How did he know I’m in your office?” When my mom made a couple of sarcastic remarks in her IM with Marco, he chided her, “Don’t joke like that!” Always the serious commentator.

He never had a computer because that was “just for smart people.” But I think he would have eventually succumbed to technology had he lived beyond the year 2000. He would not be able to resist another pair of binoculars, another landing for his commentary.

I can just see him now, talking to the computer. He would read this blog and say, “You mean everybody in the world can read about me?” And “Shouldn’t there be serious picture of me instead?”

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Thoughts of My Father

Sky

I thought I might find you here
coaxing your precious plants to feed our family
with the help of shape shifters that transport mist

from mountain peaks that seduce the foolish
from insistent waves that soothe the senses
from meandering streams that inspire the poet
from salty tears that contain life’s yearning.

But the cerulean garden was heaven’s camouflage
for the ancient future of hope
that I might find you here.

Perhaps next time.

This is a re-post from November 2012.  I took this photo from the airplane as I was about to land in Hawaii.  It was like flying through heaven.  I changed the original title (“I Thought I Might Find You Here”).  

 

 

Legacy Shattered

Her humming wakes me.
Her profile illumined by moonlight
sneaking through sheer breezy curtains.
She rocks a cradle I’ve not seen.
Her eyes are closed. She smiles a secret.
I want to sit with her.

I stumble off a floor mattress,
my legs surprisingly short and pudgy.
I toddle on dimpled feet,
cloth diaper scritching my thighs.
I know I am a dream toddler,
yet I persist, seeking, seeking.

I want to coddle with you, I announce.
Yet all I can say is MAAAMMMAAAA.
I clutch at her arm, a hard wooden branch.
She ignores me, her eyes closed.  She hums.
I crawl into the rocking cradle,
hoping to inhale her mother song.

I nestle into bunting warmed by her breath
and am shockingly pierced by broken glass
lining the blanket, shards of mirror
that revel her soul and identity.
I am mercifully startled from this nightmare.
Awaken, woman, awaken.

I am stunned into now, to the tradewind breath
of my son in the Moses basket next to my bed.
His calls to me cries of I need you, your life and touch.
So I hold him. He drinks my milk and energy
and I declare to that mother in the cold moonlight.
Be gone.  You have no hold on me.

Legacy Shattered

 

Lifelines

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI once thought I deserved the love
of captives bound by obligations and guilt
I demanded bounties from brothers and sons
husbands and fathers
amid the circle of women who chant promises
of ancient legacies conceived in vaults of wombs

But I know now
that the lifelines that weave
the tapestry I have become in this time and place
are ephemeral shadows and faint fingerprints
dusted by starlight to shimmer in Pacific waves
pulsing to the cadence of the Universe

A thread of a whisper
The feather touches of friends long forgotten
Random memories of lives I have led
or perhaps imagined
Dreams of worlds real and alternate
where strangers call me friend