The gown dwarfs the little boy, the cap extending a head-width-and-a-half on either side. He tries to smile, head atilt, but the sun is in his eyes, and at an age so directed, so often, all he can muster is a stiff, squinty, baring of primary teeth. Next to him, a baby with a head more skin than hair, identifiable as a girl only by flouncy dress, puffy sleeves, and shirred bodice, fulfils the lesser expectation, gazing directly, if blankly, into the camera. The date stamp says the little boy is five, the girl-baby nine months old. The only one remaining of this time-snatch, she recalled nothing of it until the time came to sort through her brother’s things.

By turns she had always felt emptiness, sadness, guilt, loss because she could not remember the presumptive photographer. What future did he envision for his children, peering through the lens, commemorating the eldest’s kindergarten graduation? He didn’t know yet that he wouldn’t participate in that future, that his own held only three-and-a-half years.

All she knows of her father she gleaned from what her brothers told her, what her mother chose to, and belongings left behind. There were photos, sure, but she treasured most those items that bore his handwriting, which she admired – letters written but not mailed, and a list: Letters I must write. In her mother’s closet were a banjo and ukulele that no one played. A bookcase held titles that no one read until she did: Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov.

After the diagnosis, he flew the family to Hanapepe so the children could meet their grandparents. Their mother sternly rebuked the brothers for using Baba and Jiji instead of the honorific forms. She would not suffer their justification, the cousins’ use. Don’t talk back. There is a photo of him, right arm holding his toddler-girl, left hand on a stone pot, as if for support. Behind, plumeria branches bow gently toward them; heliconia thrust powerfully skyward. He smiles wanly; across his eyes the photo is mysteriously creased, making them look glassy. She remembers that quilted white robe with the pink roses and the (itchy) lace trim at the hem and sleeves, but nothing else.

Home again, their mother knew he was very sick. His eyes, his color, so many blood tests, she would later say. In the hospital, she studied his chart as he slept, painstakingly copying the words she didn’t know. Once home, her Japanese-English dictionary delivered incomprehensible comprehension: leukemia. She would take him back to Hanapepe, where his stone mason father chose black marble granite for the headstone of his youngest son.

The doughy-faced girl-baby is now wizened and gray, with far more birthdays behind than ahead. Unable to remember her father, she has crafted myths. One such concerns the birth of her child, to whom she found herself singing not standard lullabies, but You Are My Sunshine. He must have sung it to her, playing his ukulele, she decides.

Talk story

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