A Tipsy Outrigger in Tahiti
Around 1970, when I was three, my mother and I joined her parents in Tahiti. My grandfather loved Tahiti and had an intimate connection to the place. Naturally I don’t recall much of the trip besides sun, surf, and hot sand—and most of what I recall is likely memories of memories, things I have thought about periodically or been told over the years—but I do remember when my grandmother tried to kill me. Well, she always denied intending to, but that’s my version of this childhood trauma. Because the dear woman died a few years ago, the old witch will finally stop contradicting me.
My grandfather had a droll sense of humor. My mom said he used to make faces over his wife’s shoulder when she talked a bit too much at the dining room table, sticking a spoon to his face and such. He was good at making my mom laugh, and she loved to laugh. She wasn’t fond of insects and reptiles, however, and when she found a lizard in a bathroom right on the Tahitian beach, she screamed until he came running. My grandfather caught it for her, but when he lifted it up to scare her just a bit more the tail broke free and the lizard shot off to freedom. He used the tail to light his pipe, and she screamed again—somewhat good-naturedly. These were the things that she would recount in later years and which oddly enough reminded her of how much she loved him.
This picture was his idea, too, and long served as my mother’s “blackmail picture,” the one she threatened to circulate if I ever gave her too much lip. He gave me the briefcase and hat, and took the shot. (I’ll let you wonder whether I’ve censored the picture to protect my ego or yours.) I think I would have enjoyed my grandfather’s company—our politics would have been pretty much opposite but our similarly puckish humor right on the mark—and am disappointed he died not long after this trip.
But the most compelling memory from Tahiti is the very brief outrigger canoe trip with my grandparents. An outrigger is a capable craft—in the right hands (as in the fabulous closing credits of the old TV show Hawaii Five-O). As it turns out, you can lean pretty far to one side in these canoes but not much in the other. It is also just as stable upside-down as upside-right, and bloody hard to put right without anything to stand on. All three of us went right under, and these were the days before everyone and their dog wore life preservers. My iconic memory: Being surrounded by bright clear water, eyes wide open, about arm’s length from the sandy bottom specked with colored shells—then it all fell away in a blur. My grandfather had reached down into the water and plucked me out by the ankle, like a caught fish. He let me dangle a moment then placed me atop the hull of the inverted canoe. I cried furiously. As they paddled us shore, my grandmother always said she told me, “Oh hush, you have the only dry seat!”
It was a running joke between us, that she’d tried to kill me. Every family needs a few of those. She was an uncannily sarcastic, sharp-witted octagenarian. But quite in contradiction of our verbal sparring, we were each other’s favorites (and perhaps still are; she died recently at age 90). When it came to family, she was my outrigger, a source of family news and constancy. And the memories of Tahiti, albeit burnished by time and longing, stand out in my mind as a time when everyone was present and happy.
I intend to go back to Tahiti one of these days with a hat and a briefcase and little else.