As Halloween’s ghostly hour draws near, prepare yourself for some true-to-life, Hawaiian storytelling. Granted, it’s from accumulated memories, some mine, some my mom’s, and some from my older siblings. A very superstitious people, belief in the supernatural is inherent in our culture. While native Hawaiians today may not speak of the religion of our ancestors, most, including myself, won’t dispute what we were told. I’m certain it’s the same with descendants of other native people, whose beliefs were so closely intertwined with nature.
When I was a pre-teen, I met “big-aunty” for the first time. I’d heard tales about her, so I imagined she’d look and act like a mean, ugly old woman, a hag, a witch. I dreaded having to look at her, scared to death that she’d cast her malevolent eye upon me. I didn’t want to touch any part of her, not even shake her hand. I was baptized a Catholic, but as a frightened kid, I wasn’t sure my religion was going to protect me from a relative imbued with supernatural powers. In truth, I don’t think we children even spoke of “big aunty,” fearful that even our words would draw her attention, and bad luck would befall us.
With great anticipation, and some anxiety, I looked forward to finally meeting our family “Kahuna,” the witch doctor. At a cousin’s high school graduation reception at his parent’s home, my mom introduced me to “big aunty.” If my memory serves me right, my mom’s attitude seemed reverential, as if deferring to someone of higher standing.
The eyes that greeted mine reminded me of the sea as it washes up onto black sand beaches on the Big Island of Hawaii. While her stare seemed able to penetrate right through me, I felt as though I were gazing into eyes that were dull, dead. I think she was in her 80’s at the time. But I was captivated by my “big aunty’s” small stature, and soft, gentle countenance, framed by thinning, white hair, cut short. By comparison, her younger sister, my mom, was broader, towering over her older sibling by several inches. At that moment, I feared my mom more than my aunt. Strange, I thought, how different the real person, from the one I’d imagined all those years.
Caught up in the celebration, and wanting to hang out with my boy cousins, Lincoln and Martin, whom I rarely ever saw, I didn’t engage in much conversation with “big aunty.” She, of course, spent most of her time mingling with the other adults. From time to time, I would seek her out, just to be near her. Her charisma was evident, even when she was still. In her presence, I felt no evil, only goodness. But I knew from my mom that “kahunas” possessed both; they could cast good spells, and bad ones. They could also remove spells cast by other “kahunas.”
An older brother and sister were favorites of “big aunty,” from what I’ve been told. Because there were so many of us, she would have them spend the summers with her in Kahakuloa on Maui. While tourists are able to visit that coastal village today, roads were almost nonexistent in the old days. Of packed dirt, they were difficult to travel, especially when heavy rains eroded the soil, leaving behind deep ruts. Electricity did not exist, so nights were lit by kerosene lamps. I can remember only a couple of occasions when I visited the home built by “big aunty’s” oldest son. Being the youngest in my family, I always went with my mom. Thank God! Nights in that house by the beach, scared the living day lights out of me!
There were no screens on the windows, so I’d lay awake watching the flimsy, homemade, cotton, print curtains gently swaying in the breeze. Humid, the still air would make falling asleep difficult, especially with one whose imagination was as active as mine. I’m sure I lay there bug-eyed, anticipating what might happen at any moment. Listening to the smooth pebbles that blanketed the nearby shore, tumbling over one another as the waves washed over them, added to my insomnia. On one such night as I’ve described, something did happen.
I was but a child, not allowed, and probably not inclined, to witness as much as the adults. But I still remember the overwhelming sense that things were not right, not good, not holy. We were awaken by “big aunty’s” children, whom we kids called aunty and uncle because they were near my mom’s age, even though they were her nephew and niece-in-law. I’m not positive, but I think my two siblings directly above me in age, were with my mom and me.
As the kerosene lamp cast eerie shadows in the darkness, I could hear the adults speaking in hushed, frantic whispers. Beads of sweat appeared upon my mom’s brow; fear showing in her eyes. Uncle left the room, as mom and aunty continued talking in barely audible voices. “Big aunty” was mentioned throughout the conversation. It seemed something was happening that involved her. I think we kids were told to go back to sleep, when they left the bedroom. Easier said than done.
Other than seeing the adults’ reaction, the only picture framed in my memory is the one I have looking out the window at a shack set back towards the edge of the property, which belonged to “big aunty.” I don’t think she lived there, but she would ensconce herself in the shack for days at a time. On this particular night, I could see images walking back and forth inside the shack. For some reason, the light emanating from within was bright, not like the dimly lit rooms in the main house. I don’t know who the figures were. I don’t think they included my mom, aunt and uncle. It seems to me they were watching from elsewhere in the house, that they were not with “big aunty.” My sense was they were staying clear of what was occurring in the shack. The only other thing I remember before finally succumbing to sleep, is hearing wails coming from the shack, ungodly cries. Now, in the comfort of older age and the safety of my home, I can wish I’d been a “fly on the wall” of the shack. Back then I wished we would have gotten the h— out of there.
The next morning at the breakfast table, the adults were still speaking in quiet voices. From what they said, I gathered “big aunty” was exhausted, worn out from the previous evenings occurrences. I don’t remember if we saw her before leaving Kahakuloa later that day. In fact, we may have driven off after breakfast, my mom not wanting to remain any longer than necessary.
Whether I overheard or was told, it seems a woman had visited “big aunty” in the middle of the night. Looking to enlist her help, the woman asked that a curse be placed upon her husband, or the woman with whom he was having an affair. Evidently “big aunty” consented, and what took place involved her levitating off the ground.
From what I understand, “big aunty” derived her powers from the devil. They were “held” within a “special, blue rock” secreted away in a cave in the side of the mountain, overlooking her shack. There was one particular story which my child’s imagination could vividly picture, when it was told to me.
During my childhood, tsunamis seemed commonplace. As my older sister, beloved by “big aunty” told the story, the sea had rolled back toward the horizon, exposing the ocean floor, a normal phenomenon with tidal waves. When the waters thundered back towards the shoreline, they split in time to spare a cow tied to a palm tree in front of my uncle’s home and “big aunty’s” shack. The waters circumvented the buildings as they continued thrashing forward, wreaking havoc everywherelse. I would liked to have been standing alongside my relatives as they witnessed the extraordinary event, from high atop the mountain.
Before “big aunty” died, she attempted to pass her powers along to her beloved nephew, my older brother. My older sister, of whom I’ve spoken, had called my mom from Honolulu, where she and my brother lived in neighboring apartments. He was sick with cold sweats and fever. At night when the moon was full, he claimed to see a spirit enter through an open window, coming to rest on top of his chest. He felt its full weight as it tried to squeeze the life out of him. I think this happened more than once. With the break of dawn, the apparition disappeared. When my mom heard this, she called “big aunty’s” family right away. From them she learned that her sister was very sick. Phoning my sister with the news, she was ordered not to let my brother return to Maui.
My mom felt that “big aunty” wanted my brother by her side before she died, that she wanted to tell him where to look for the “special” rock, wanting him to carry on as “kahuna.” A devout Catholic after converting to my father’s religion, my mom had no desire to have dealings with the devil, or have any of her children involved either. When my brother did not fly home to Maui, I think “big aunty” got better, and so did my brother. I’m not certain when she died, but she did so without passing her powers onto anyone, that I know. Unless she found someonelse, the rock remains hidden in the cave to this day.
I’m as dedicated to my Catholic beliefs, as my mom was when she lived. But like her, I’m a native very respectful of my Hawaiian heritage. As I get older, my roots seem even more deeply embedded in the soil of my culture. When I visit sacred grounds or spend the night lodged near sea cliffs, the hairs on my neck stand up, and I sense, and feel things that others don’t, not even my husband or daughter. It’s as though spirits of my ancestors know I feel their presence, that I’m sensitive, a potential “medium.” It may be my imagination playing tricks upon me, but my family history makes me feel otherwise.
“Big aunty” wasn’t the only purveyor of curses; my mom would herself seek the help of “others” when she felt someone had put a spell on her. I’m not sure if they were “kahunas,” but they had influence over my mom for sure. I recall that she would refer to those she saw as “holy” people who would “lay their hands upon her,” blessing her, removing any evil.
There were times when my mom would drive to a lady’s home in Iao Valley, after picking me up from school. She’d disappear into the house for hours, while I waited in the car doing my homework, eventually curling up to take a nap. When my mom returned, she’d either recovered from whatever ailed her, or murmured worriedly that it would take time for things to sort themselves out. I never asked what she meant; I don’t think I really wanted to know. Taught by priests and nuns, I couldn’t reconcile my mom’s superstitious practices with my Catholic school upbringing. But the passing of years has a way of altering one’s perspective.
Maturity, motherhood, and a lifetime of experiences changed my perception of what was, and what is. I can accept, in fact cherish, being a native Hawaiian, and all that encompasses. Yet I can still worship God who, in His generosity, created all of us to live our best lives with what He has given us, including nature, its inhabitants and their habitats. God did not tell us how to live, just that we live. He gave us “free will;” and he will determine if we did the best we could.
proud of my heritage, including “big aunty”…hugmamma.