STAR-BULLETIN / 1987
Nona Beamer kept her friendships alive in part through unique letters she wrote to her loved ones. Above, Beamer acts out a story of Hawaiian culture for children at Church of the Crossroads preschool in Moilili.
Until we meet again
More than just a cultural icon, Nona Beamer was a friend to many near and far
I lost a dear friend the other day. She was Nona Beamer, best known as a genius in the Hawaiian arts.
But Aunty Nona was a genius in the art of friendship, too. She reached out to many people in many places.
How lucky I was to be embraced by Nona's love, humor and loyalty for 22 years. Despite health setbacks during the past two years, Nona characteristically worried about me until the very end.
We met due to happenstance: I was assigned to write an article about her in 1986. Out of roughly 200 people I interviewed for "personality profiles" in Hawaii, only Nona set out to be my personal friend for the rest of her life.
After my mother had a stroke in 1987, Nona visited her at "Rehab," the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific. Not once, but every day for six weeks.
To visit my ill mother 42 times was an extraordinary gift from a person whose lifelong mission -- preserving and perpetuating the Hawaiian culture -- was the guiding force ... a woman who was famous, sought after and dedicated to sons Keola and Kapono and extended family.
Over the years, Nona gave me other gifts that have brought depth and insight to my life. The greatest was my Hawaiian name, Kamalu.
"I want to give you a name for protection," Nona said, without explaining. She spent considerable time choosing a unique name.
Ten years ago, I confided to Nona that I was anxious about an upcoming trip to Missouri for research about my grandparents, because I would arrive in my mother's birthplace on the anniversary of her death.
"Oh, I think we'll have to write you a chant," said Nona, sounding alarmed. She conveyed facts and ideas to a student whom she asked to draft the chant.
In a few days, she called to read me the results: " ... with deep love, all the way to the bone," she translated.
"No," Nona interrupted herself. "I don't think that's right, do you?"
That question of Hawaiian language was over my head, but I suddenly realized: "Yes! It's perfect, because my grandparents were osteopaths." The prefix "osteo" comes from the Greek word for bone.
Nona and her student, John Gilbert Kaleoaloha Ray IV, coached me to arrive in the town and find a secluded place to deliver the chant. Scattered through it is the phrase "Noke no" -- persevere.
"Say it loudly. Say it like you mean it," Nona directed. I practiced until she was satisfied.
As in many friendships, Nona and I worried about each other. I could not restrain my objections when she told me of plans to bring a winner of a Beamer Family scholarship to Hawaii -- a young man, a stranger, whom she invited to stay with her.
"Well, where else is he going to stay?" Nona asked. And I need not have worried: He is Kaliko Beamer-Trapp, whom Nona subsequently hanai'd and who has contributed mightily to the revival of the Hawaiian language.
Nona's speech was a mixture of music and comedy. "Hello-o-o-o-o," she would chant into the phone. "How are you, darling? This is No-o-o-na."
She would ask about my husband and me, and then talk story. "I'm going to come back as an orange water lily" would be followed by a confidential laugh: "Heh-heh-heh."
Nona's wit must have helped her as she faced many obstacles, especially racial discrimination. The indignities heaped on the Hawaiian people made her hopping mad throughout her lifetime. Nona also had the challenges of a single working mother.
Hawaiian activist, mother and grandmother to Kapono's son, Kamana, Nona was clear about her priorities.
She hoped to give her name and bracelets to a granddaughter. But no granddaughter materialized, and Nona passed along some of her life's work through hanai.
After 25 years in Hawaii, my husband, John, and I moved back to the mainland. Nona and I kept up by phone call and letter.
I sift through Nona's letters, riveted by her unique shorthand: "Hoping U R OK. Kaliko will come next week; be glad 2 C him. B well. Love U Kamalu dear, & U R a dear!" Rather than repeat a word, she would draw an arrow to its first use. "Teeth painful? Remove (arrow). Ha-ha!" I am still trying to decode some of her comments.
More quirky was Nona's "stationery." She wrote letters on the backs of other letters -- both from and to her. And on scraps of paper. To read these was to go on a treasure hunt through folded "pages" with numbered segments.
With loss comes regret. Through tears, I reread the invitations I felt I could not accept, due to distance, expense and a serious illness in my family.
But Nona never stopped reaching out to me: "Was awarded Hwn homestead land in Lahaina bldg 2 B pau for Xmas. Planning pa'ina. Can u come?"
Oh, Nona. If only ...
Ceil Sinnex is a writer with special interests in health and Hawaiiana. Her most recent article in the Star-Bulletin was "Endangered Memories," about her husband's life in Hawaii. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org