Travel Log: Touching Ohana

Ala Moana Park

(Houston, Texas; Apr 25, 2018) I’m currently sitting in the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, waiting with my parents to catch our last flight back to Florida. If you keep up with my Flickr or Instagram feeds, you know I’ve been zipping all over Oahu in Hawai’i since April 12. However, I’ve been off-line from my blog because I’ve been way too busy to write.

You see, this trip to Hawai’i, while nailing down the 21st state in my Ground Tour USA, was not a vacation. To put it in Navy terms, it was a working port. A “working port” sees the ship pull in to accomplish a mission. Yes, the crew gets liberty here and there, but the point of the port visit is work; time off is secondary. A liberty port, on the other hand, is a port the ship pulls into specifically to give the crew as much time off as possible. This trip back home to Hawai’i was a working port.

Yes, I did say “home to Hawai’i.” My mother is from Louisiana, but my father was born in the Territory of Hawai’i (you read that right: territory, not state). My family settled in the islands over 120 years ago. Pop grew up on Oahu until he was ten, then went to join Grandpa over in Japan and Okinawa as Grandpa worked for the federal government during the occupation. Pop came back to the island after graduating high school and started college at Chaminade College (now Chaminade Univeristy) before heading to the mainland in 1964…and meeting my mother in 1965 (they married in 1966).

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The “founders” of the Miller family in Hawai’i: my great-grandparents, William Victor and Maria G. Miller.  They both came to Hawai’i independently of each other in the early 20th century.  They met and married on Oahu, and they’re buried in Diamond Head Memorial Park in the shadow of Hawai’i’s most famous landmark.

Pop comes from a very large family, but only two of his circle are left. My grandmother, Toshiko, is 93 and in an assisted care home with dementia. Pop’s first cousin, Anthony (my brother and I’s second cousin), is also still on the island. Anthony is now 80 and, being developmentally disabled, operates on about a 6-year-old level. Since my Great Uncle Tony and Auntie Kiki died (Anthony’s parents) he’s also been in assisted care home. After grandpa died in 2006, Pop became sole guardian of Anthony, and then also of Grandma when dementia robbed her of the ability to live independently. He goes home twice a year to check on them and touch base with the lawyer, CPA, financial advisor, and respective banking institutions to ensure the trusts that keep both safely cared for are running smoothly.

My older brother and I have been talking these past couple of years about the family future. If something happens and pop dies before Grandma and Anthony, my brother and I become the guardians of Grandma. Anthony’s guardianship will pass to Anthony and Pop’s only other cousin. But my brother and I will need to supervise the transfer of control over Anthony’s trust to her.

Pop is 75. Now, he’s no shrinking plumeria. Hell, on his 75th birthday I helped him cut down a rather large tree in our yard in Niceville, Florida! Pop climbed the ladder and handled the chainsaw—he was worried I’d get hurt if I did that part. Once a dad, always a dad!

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Pop puts flowers on Grandpa and Uncle Bobby’s vault in Diamond Head Memorial Park.  When Grandpa showed pop the vault he’d purchased for him and grandma, pop asked why he had to pick one so high up.  Grandpa’s response: “We’ll have a great view from up there!”  True story.

But the fact remains that it is possible, and my brother and I have had no idea who the players are or where all the pieces are on the board that care for Grandma. With us both having been active duty, neither had the time to learn. I’m retired now; I have the time.

I joined mom and pop, and spent most of the 12 days there meeting the family’s legal and financial wizards, as well meeting the caregivers at Grandma’s and Anthony’s homes. Hawai’i has a model the rest of the country should consider for senior care. There are many independent, licensed foster homes for elder care that keep the elderly in actual home environments. These foster homes only care for three or four residents, so each resident is literally treated as part of the family.

We drove over 1,100 miles across Oahu between meetings, visits with Anthony and Grandma, and the brief times we could snatch for recreating. I’m rather impressed we got as much done as we did!

But…

In the Hawaiian language “ohana” is the word for family. Like many Pacific peoples, ohana is very important to the Hawaiian people (hence the development of foster care for elderly relatives instead of large institutions). My first visit to Hawai’i was in 1973; I was two and don’t remember it. Then we visited the family in 1976, 1978, 1982, 1985, and 1986. My grandparents visited us in Florida in 1991. But I didn’t set foot on Oahu again until 2009. And then another nine years until this trip. I’ve always liked Hawai’i, but never felt terribly close to it. Now, do not misread this to mean I didn’t give a damn about the people. Nope, I love them and have always loved being around them. I miss my grandpa and my cousin Josie and Aunti Kiki and Uncle Tony and my dad’s younger brother, my Uncle Bobby. This is about having a sense of connection to the larger family legacy; a connection to the family’s place in the tapestry of Hawaiian society and history—that’s what was lacking.

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My grandmother, Toshiko Miller, and I.  She’s 93 and, sadly, has dementia.  She lives very comfortably and safely in an elder foster home in Honolulu.

This trip changed all that. Pop and I spent hours in the car together going from one appointment to the other. This gave him a chance to point out all the hangouts, hideouts, and hideaways he got into as a kid with my uncle and his cousins. He told me about getting expelled from Chaminade College over sneaking out to go get a hamburger in Honolulu…and talking his way back into school! I got to meet many of my grandparents’ friends, and one couple—Lance and Sandy—invited me to their wedding anniversary in July 2019. One night I got to hang out with my dad and deceased uncle’s high school crowd (the funniest upshot—my pop was such a straight arrow in high school these old guys had no embarrassing stories to tell me!).

For the second time I visited the family graves in Diamond Head Memorial Park…but this time I connected to them. The price of being a military kid and moving around is that you often don’t develop a deep sense of roots to any but your immediately family. Getting involved in the care of my elderly relatives, getting to spend time with pop while hearing his stories…it all jump-started a sense of the blood tie I have to these islands but never felt (when your dad points out a mountain he and his little brother used to scramble up and a stream he got a whipping for sneaking down to when he was seven, you’d have to be a cold man not to start feeling the connection to your larger ohana).

USS Utah Memorial
My second cousin, Anthony, and I at the USS Utah Memorial on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor.  Unfortunately, Anthony is developmentally disabled and has had to rely on extended care his whole life.  Like my grandmother, he’s in a foster home that provides care, fellowship, dignity, and spritely company for him.

My family are not Native Hawaiians. Nope; that honor belongs to the people who’s ancestors first settled those islands thousands of years ago. But my blood has been in that soil for over 100 years. The “Big House” my great-grandfather built by hand still stands in Honolulu. It’s owned by a different family now, but it’s there. The first house my grandfather owned in Lanikai is still there, as is the house he built just up the block (that latter house is the one I grew up visiting and is now being rented out to support my grandmother’s trust).

I will be writing up all adventures later, but, this morning, as I sit in Texas (the state I was born in), waiting to finish flying home to Florida (the state my immediate family adopted as home), I am struck by the sudden reality of finding myself touching, and being touched by, my ancestral ohana.

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Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

Instagram: @sparks1524

Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sparks_photography/

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