Story by Diane Haynes Woodburn
It started with a phone call four months ago. “When is your dad’s birthday?” asked Kimokeo. “Tell him I’m going to give him a lu‘au, so he has to visit us.” Kimokeo Kapahulehua, a Native Hawaiian, and my father, a little Jewish man with a slight Boston accent, met just a few years ago, and an instant and enduring bond was formed.
Invitations for Malcolm’s eighty-seventh birthday lu‘au went out to friends and family near and far. For months, my husband and I were immersed in a frenzy of unending tasks to plan and prepare for the festivities: making lists, shopping, booking hotel and airline reservations, and making decisions. Decisions, decisions. What kind of centerpiece? What color tablecloths? Do we have enough music? Food? Help arrived from many quarters. Kendall would bring poi from Kaua‘i, Kimokeo arranged for the pig, Cindy would fly in from Washington with lomi lomi salmon in tow. Teri arranged for dozens of Maui Gold pineapples. The help was as endless as the lists. This would be “a once-in-a-lifetime lu‘au,” Kimokeo promised.
Friends and family arrived from O‘ahu, Kaua‘i, California, Washington, even Kansas! Finally, Dad arrived from California, looking a little weary. Ah, he’s just tired, we all agreed as we jumped back into the blur of activity. The tent was up, my sister and Gerome were putting the finishing touches on the table decorations, my sister-in-law and niece were slicing pineapples and chopping vegetables, the pig was in the imu—all seemed well, and then . . . disaster.
Dad’s fatigue had turned into pneumonia and bed rest was ordered. He was going to miss the entire party! It couldn’t be worse—or could it? The sky darkened and a deluge of rain poured down. People would have to park blocks away, then slog their way up our steep, 500-foot driveway and across a sodden 200 feet of lawn before reaching the shelter of the tent. “Holy —-!” I thought, “no one will drive Upcountry through this rain, only to be drenched when they get here!” The lyrics of a song from my teenage years reverberated in my head: “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to—you would cry, too, if it happened to you.”
And then, an amazing thing happened. Folks began to arrive. Buoyed by camaraderie and the smell of roasting pork, they poured in—two by two and drenched—finding their way to our Noah’s ark of a tent, where they huddled together and laughed (laughed!) in warmth and merriment, bearing lei and birthday wishes.
Both gratified and drenched, I took a moment to run up to the house and check on Dad, only to find him buttoning his new aloha shirt. Rain, pneumonia, or the Four Horsemen—Malcolm Mehlinger was not going to miss his lu‘au. Helped to his seat of honor, Dad kvelled to hear Kimokeo’s blessings and witness the planting of a koa tree in his name. Our friend Walter chanted a pule (prayer), opening his arms to the sky. “I ask, from where will the living water come to nourish this tree?” he translated. “And it is here!”