As I write this, I am sitting on a lanai in Kaanapali, Maui, sipping a watery Coke and trying to hide behind a plumeria tree, some torch ginger, and a couple of ti plants so I can see my computer screen. Tonight is the last night I will be in Hawaii; tomorrow it’s airplanes, luggage, and a rush to get the kids ready for the new school year.
I’ve had a lot of time to think on this trip. It’s been five years since I was last on Oahu and Maui. Every time I come home–and it is home, even after so many years–I see the islands with new eyes, and I remember lessons I learned as a child and better understand how they apply in my life.
A big one this week is about how we are all brave in our own way. My daughter loves horses and the faster the better. I think I like horses, but every time I get close to something a flashy like a Ferrari or even a reliable Honda I quickly jump back to my old faithful tricycle with training wheels. After a few bad falls, I figure a couple of sedate family rides a year in the mountains is good enough for me. I’m not going to run barrels or do reining horse patterns. Just getting on and staying on is enough of an e-ticket ride for me.
But the ocean’s a different story. I could spend all day every day in or on the water, SCUBA diving, boogie boarding, on a boat, on a reef, or just floating in the shallows. I know the ocean, at least the waters around Maui and Oahu, and know when there’s a problem and when there’s not.
Not so much my daughter. She swims well, but the ocean’s not a pool or a lake. There are critters in it and all of them want to take a bite out of her, she’s certain. The first day we were off Waimanalo, one of the best beaches to take kids who want to learn to boogie board or learn to be comfortable in the ocean. The water is usually very clear, it’s got a soft, sandy bottom, the waves are rolling and gentle, and it’s shallow for a long, long time. The only thing you have to watch out for are the occasional, very occasional Portuguese-Man-O-War jellyfish. I’ve been wrapped in their tentacles too many times to count. It does sting and it can leave a line of welts, but a little wet sand, some meat tenderizer, and you get back in the water. No big deal.
My daughter, of course, is looking for sharks.
“Cheryl, knock it off. There are no sharks here.”
“How do you know?”
“I know. You’re in more danger from a jellyfish than a shark any day of the week.”
“Relax. Breathe. You’re fine.”
“What do jellyfish look like?”
“They look like a bubble, floating.” I looked around and spotted what I knew was really just a bubble. “See that over there?” I splashed at it and it popped. By the time I turned back around she was halfway up the beach, screaming bloody murder. “Wait! That wasn’t a jellyfish! It popped when I splashed it. That’s how you know!”
“Cheryl! You’re more likely to get stung running up the beach through the foam than hanging out here past the shore break with me!”
“I got it,” said my husband. He went ashore with her and they walked up and down the beach until they found a jellyfish, long blue streamers broken off, just a sad little bubble sitting above the tide line. A few minutes later, she was swimming next to me, all smiles, but still keeping an eye out for sharks.
“Good news, Mom! We don’t have to worry about jellyfish anymore!”
“No! Dad says they’re territorial and that one way over there had all this beach as his territory!”
“Huh.” I cut my eyes at her father and he shrugged. It was starting to sound a lot like some of the things he’s told me about horses, cougars, and mountain trails.
It’s not the thing that makes us afraid, it’s our reaction to it. Watching my kids tackle all things ocean and foreign this past week, I’ve been amazed at the courage they’ve shown and understand a little more about how much of my adult life has been spent facing what’s foreign to me. No matter how long we’ve lived elsewhere, we’re formed by our childhood experiences which shape the way we view the world. When everyone around you takes horses or jellyfish as a matter of course, you forget that feeling uncomfortable around them is natural and not something weird or subpar about you or your character.
Cheryl summed it up best at the Maui Ocean Center when we were looking at some of my favorite sea creatures, moon jellies. She said, “If seahorses were big enough to ride, you’d ride them all day long, wouldn’t you, Mom?”
I was going through the drive-through in a place about as far away from the ocean as you can get when the voice through the speaker asked if I wanted it large-sized. I must have heard that question over a thousand times in my nefarious career as a drive-through junkie, but something about this time brought tingles of salt in sunburned creases and that special parchedness in the back of the throat that comes from a day spent body surfing at Bellows or Sherwood Forrest beaches on Oahu.
“So what part of Hawaii are you from?” I asked when I got to the window. She was young, barely out of high school, and by her expression you’d have thought I’d pulled a rabbit out of a hat.
“Uh, Honolulu,” she said, giving me the eye.
More like Papakoleʻa or Nanakule, I thought. But I understood. Honolulu’s easier.
She handed me my large drink. “How did you know?”
“Just something you said reminded me of home.”
She tilted her head, thinking back. Before we could speak more, there were other cars and customers, and the moment passed like so many random encounters do.
As the golden arches receded in the rearview mirror, the cold sweetness leapt from the straw to the back of my throat, cooling and soothing just like it used to after a day at the beach in Waimanalo. For a moment I was eighteen again, driving my old Camaro past the ironwood trees, windows down and damp towels on the seats, singing along to Kalapana on the radio while my sister dug through the glove box scrounging change so we could hit a drive-through and grab a soda for the long drive home around Makapuʻu Point. As I sipped, I could almost smell the ocean and taste the salt on the wind.
Pretty cool trick for a buck twenty-five paper cup of ice, sugar, and fizz.