Cusp of Easter

Once again my thoughts dwell on Gran’ma Julia as Easter approaches.

A deeply religious person Gran’ma Julia read her Bible often. I’d find her on her knees praying next to the bed in the morning, see her reading prayer cards in odd moments of silent reflection, and watch her lip gymnastics of prayer during a car or bus ride.

I never wondered where that devotion came from, just accepted and respected her traditions.

Born on the Big Island of Hawaii in the late 1800’s she was the oldest of six children born to Mary Ann and Jacinto. He steamshipped to the islands as a merchant seaman.

Early in Julia’s life her parents died of tuberculosis, a disease that swept through the islands striking down young, old, weak and strong.  Julia and her siblings were first divided among Mary Ann’s relatives. One or two kids to each sister or brother. But their Uncle Charlie, afraid the children would be maltreated by becoming a burden to any one family member who already had too many mouths to feed, scooped up Mary Ann’s children and deposited them all into an orphanage run by The City of Refuge missionaries. Better they grow up together in a Christian environment. He checked on them regularly so they wouldn’t lose touch with their family or feel completely abandoned.

Now a national park, the church and orphanage have disappeared. Only the pristine coconut trees, sea-shore and surrounding foliage remain. She never talked about those days so I don’t know if they were traumatic or a relief, but they formed the person I knew to be kind, gentle and loving.

At the Refuge Julia learned skills that enabled her to support herself once she turned 18 and was no longer a “burden to the state.”

Julia worked in the cafeteria where she cooked and bake, skills she later passed on the her own children – four boys and a girl. Skills that sustained her for life.

Because of her cooking prowess Julia stayed on at the Refuge until her baby sister, Nancy, was old enough to leave. As the eldest, Julia felt responsible for her siblings.

While living at the Refuge instilled Christian values in Julia, she was never shy to walk her own path.  Julia moved to Honolulu, the big city, to evade a persistent suitor. Sam was a strapping Hawaiian boy from a good family. He worked for Hawaiian Electric, a great paying job he’d have for life. Handsome, exciting, funny, he seemed a good bet. She married him. Naive Julia didn’t bargain for alcoholism and neglect. On payday he often didn’t make it home, and when he did, the money was gone.

After bearing him five children she eventually snapped, walking out on her husband and young children. In the 1930s Julia divorced Sam and later married a widower with an even more children.

Divorce? Unprecedented. Unheard of in Hawaiian society. But she did it. Her action caused consternation and shame for her family. Her children, left to fend for themselves, relied on their paternal family members to help raise them.

Her youngest son, a toddler when she left, bore the brunt of her abandonment. Sadly, he, too turned to alcoholism later in life. He had trouble maintaining a relationship, and, while he was a constant visitor to his mother’s new home, he eventually died a self-imposed outcast from his siblings.

Interestingly, as they approached mid-life, Julia and Sam became friends. When he was ill he called on her help, and she responded. Christian love? Maybe. When we visited he’d come to the house to spend the evening. Her two husbands never seemed awkward with each other.

I often wonder if she regretted her decision to divorce. We never talked about it and my mother never speculated.

Where did faith fall in the equation of her life’s decisions? Would God forgive her trespasses? Was that the reason for her religious devotion?

Does it matter?

She loved her family, and we loved her in return. And that’s the message of Easter . . . “God so loved the world He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not parish but have foreverlasting life . . . ”

Gran’ma Julia lives in my heart. And everytime I talk to my grandson I hear her voice in my head. Her soothing tonal notes, her expressions of care, devotion, and all-consuming love.

Tomorrow is Easter. A magical day. I’ll sit in a church pew and say a prayer of thanksgiving for Gran’ma Julia.


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