Maui’s 2017 obon season is winding to a close, with the last two bon dances scheduled for Saturday at Kula Shofukuji Mission and Sept. 9 at the Hana Buddhist Temple.
The very first bon dance was performed several thousand years ago by a Buddhist monk who, during meditation, saw his deceased mother trapped in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. He followed Buddha’s instructions and was able to free not only his mother, but seven generations of his ancestors. When their agony ended, he danced for joy.
In Japan, obon festivals have become more a traditional welcoming of summer than a religious rite. Here in Hawaii, where Japanese immigrant plantation workers brought the annual custom over a century ago, we continue to honor our ancestors with obon rituals. We hang lanterns to light the way home for their spirits, we dance for and with our departed loved ones.
Last Saturday, in full kimono, I joined friends and family, in person and in spirit, at the Rinzai Zen Mission in Paia. My paternal grandfather was buried there in 1961 and I have danced at that obon for as long as I can remember, missing only five or six in more than 50 years. I was only 4 when he died, so my memories of him are sketchy at best, but for some reason, I’ve always associated him with a pale bluish-white, nearly full moon. Each August, as we near the end of the bon dance, there comes a moment when I look up to the moon and see the smiling face of a grandfather I barely knew. In that instant, I am filled with joy and gratitude and a sense of eternal connection.
This year’s obon stirred even more emotion than usual, as I had just finished rereading Louis Baldovi’s memoir, “Holoholo to Wen I Wuz: Kolohe Days in Haiku, Maui — 1930s-1950s.” Like the Baldovi family, my father’s clan was rooted in East Maui. In fact, I only knew my grandfather as “Haiku Ji-chan.” Several of the Baldovis were classmates of my Dad and his siblings, and I delighted in seeing their school pictures and reading about their youthful adventures.
Louis Baldovi’s book was edited by Kekoa Catherine Enomoto and published posthumously by the Haiku Living Legacy Project, in partnership with his widow, Valerie. Since its 2007 debut, it has been reprinted and made available at several of the annual Ha’iku Ho’olaule’a events as well as online. I saw a first-edition copy advertised on Amazon as a collectible — for $115! I got mine for only $25 at Ah Fook’s, and the proceeds will go to the HLLP to help with its preservation efforts.
The night before the Rinzai Zen obon, I channeled my maternal ancestors with a different but equally joyful celebration. Emceeing the Makawao Third Friday town party, I danced in the streets to the Motown music of the Jerry Caires Jr. Band. The main stage stood less than a block away from the house where my grandparents raised my mother and her six siblings. The little wooden structure now houses the Goodies boutique and is just a couple of doors down from the Makawao History Museum.
Stories of my grandfather’s jaunts in his Model A and of the local police officers stopping by for my grandmother’s moonshine were fresh in my mind, as I had attended the inaugural meeting of the MHM Advisory Council just a few days earlier. The council will join the museum’s board of directors in pursuing its mission to “preserve and share the cultural heritage of our Makawao community by bringing history to life for present and future generations.”
Friday night before the festivities began, I stopped in at “the little museum that could” and purchased a copy of “Hub of My Wheel – A Portuguese Family Memories on Maui.” The book is a collection of stories told by Alice L. Tavares (nee Fernandez), written and edited by Alice’s friend and neighbor Therese An Beaudry. Just a few pages in, I saw references to people and places that my mother has spoken of, including Miss Elizabeth Kennedy and her Pukalani brothel.
Like Louis Baldovi’s book, “Hub of My Wheel” includes numerous plantation-era photographs and family portraits, precious moments captured in black and white. It’s one of several Upcountry-themed publications available at the museum. You can order online at makawaomuseum.org, but I highly recommend an actual visit.
Obon season may be ending, but the past week has reminded me that honoring our ancestors and celebrating our history can — and should — be year-round activities. Along with dancing for joy.
* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.