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Writings open window on earlier time

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

August 5, 2011
By ILIMA LOOMIS - Staff Writer ( , The Maui News

WAILUKU - Travels through Hawaii and Asia in the 1930s and uranium prospecting in the American west are among the adventures recounted by Kihei resident Judith Robeck in her self-published memoir, "Suddenly Ninety."

Robeck, who lives at Kalama Heights Retirement Residence, said she has been writing "all (her) life," while also drawing and painting.

The book features sketches and watercolors of some of the scenes along her journeys.

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"I have journals that I've kept forever," she said. She began taking classes on writing and journaling in the 1980s and later joined a group that met twice a month to write in their diaries.

Thanks to that writing habit, Robeck has preserved memories of her family's trip around the world in 1934, when Robeck was 14.

The first stop of their voyage was Oahu, where she and the other girls wore Panama hats, gloves and stockings as they walked down the gangplank to be greeted with lei at Honolulu Harbor.

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The family toured the Pali lookout, Moanalua Gardens and the Dole pineapple factory, where they sampled fresh pineapple juice, and Robeck went surfing with a handsome beach boy at Waikiki.

"Lunch at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel was mango salad, poi and Bombay duck hash and coconut ice cream," she wrote.

Robeck's recollections of her tour through Asia open a window on an earlier time, just a few years before World War II would forever change many of the countries she visited.

Arriving next in Japan at Yokohama Harbor, Robeck wrote about hearing the "clickety-clack" of wooden geta shoes as women in kimonos stared and giggled at her strange Western clothes.

Later, the family traveled by night train to Kyoto, sleeping in a small cabin with just a hole in the floor to use as a toilet.

"The full moon reflected in rice paddies, walls of homes were pushed open. Lanterns shone through thin paper walls as we sped across the countryside," she wrote.

In Shanghai, they traveled by rickshaw to the Palace Hotel; they saw water buffalo pulling plows and carts in Manila; toured a Singapore rubber plantation; and rode elephants in Ceylon, now called Sri Lanka.

"We took turns . . . wobbling from side to side, their hairs prickling our bare knees, back and forth in the stream," she wrote. "He raised his trunk for a photo."

Later in her life, Robeck also recalled her trips driving and camping across the western United States with her children and husband, a geologist.

"I really enjoyed that," she said in an interview.

Robeck said that taking writing classes, including courses with local writer Paul Wood at Maui Community College, which is now University of Hawaii Maui College, helped her learn how to refine the anecdotes she had been jotting down for years and turn them into something she could share with others.

"I was always writing, writing too much stuff," she said. "I didn't know how to edit and be concise."

When her daughter died in 2003, Robeck said she started writing with more urgency, wanting her surviving daughter and her sister to know about her life and their family's story. As the project came together, Robeck worked with the print-on-demand company Xibris to self-publish her recollections as a 55-page memoir.

At age 90, Robeck said it was gratifying to see her life story in print.

"I've had such a wonderful response from people who know me," she said. "But I feel everybody has an interesting story."

For copies of the book, call Robeck at 879-1851.

* Ilima Loomis can be reached at



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