Family Ties, Big Island Style

For many people, going to Hawaii offers up the promise of adventure. And depending upon your interests, that adventure can take many forms.

Feel like exploring nature under water? There’s no limit to the snorkeling and scuba diving options throughout the islands. Surfing is at the top of a lot of Hawaii travelers’s lists. If you have a four-wheel drive vehicle, you can head up to the almost 14,000-ft summit of Maura Kea. And almost as adventurous as the drive up is mastering your 4×4’s low gears as you try not to burn up your brakes on the way down. A hike along the lava fields near the constantly erupting Kilauea can be breathtaking, or life-ending if you take the wrong step near one of the flowing rivers of 2,000-degree magma. And there is always the solemnity and history that comes with a visit to Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial.

A few of these items were on my family’s itinerary as part of a recent trip we took to the Big Island of Hawaii. But there was also something more adventurous than all of those items combined that we had in mind. Something that really doesn’t show up on the hundreds of activity fliers that are in every Hawaiian hotel lobby. Something that gets at the the heart of who we are and where we came from.

We were looking for family.

It’s no secret that all families have their own stories, and characters, too. For example, my dad used to say that when he was in the army during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he and the other paratroopers had to sleep on the runway, under their planes, in order to be ready to invade Cuba as soon as John F. Kennedy said the word.

Now, this story might be apocryphal, but it’s become part of our family lore. But, in order to have such lore as part of your family, you need to have a family to be the source of such tales. And this how we came to spend a day driving through the southern, Kua region of the Big Island on a quest to find my wife’s roots.

You see, my wife, Megan, was adopted. And as is the case with many children who are adopted, Megan has always wanted to know where, and who, she was from. Her story isn’t uncommon among children of adoption: Her birth parents were young, her mother got pregnant and didn’t feel she was in a position to be a mother, and she gave up Megan for adoption. Within a matter of days, the couple that would be Megan’s parents, her mom and dad, had found her and took her home to Oakland where she has always lived. In fact, we live in the home where he parents brought her and gave her a name and a life. She found her birth parents, who never married or stayed together, back in 2003, and has developed good relationships with both of them.

But, as it turned out, her birth father was from Hawaii. He met Megan’s birth mother on Oahu, they went to California together, and, the rest of the story is history. Or, it was, until Megan began pulling at the strings of her birth father’s family.

And it was all of that pulling that took us on a trip around the Big Island.

One thing you learn very quickly about the Big Island is this: It really is big. The whole island encompasses a little more than 4,000 square miles and it makes up 63 percent of the total landmass of all the Hawaiian Islands. The Big Island is so big that you can take the other seven main islands of Hawaii–Maui, Oahu, Kauai, Molokai, Lanai, Niihau and Kahoolawe–drop them onto the Big Island, and still have enough room left for an extra Maui, Oahu and Molokai. When you head out on a drive around a piece of land that big, you make sure you have a map, and a full tank of gas before you hit the road.

We departed from the condo where we stayed in Waikoloa Village on the western side of the island and headed south, eventually passing Kailua-Kona, the second-largest city on Hawaii. And like any road trip that’s worth taking, a drive around the Big Island includes its share of stops at places unique to the place where you are driving.

One of those unique things about Hawaii is that it is the only state in America where coffee is grown. Another is that it is the southernmost state in America. So, it makes sense that the southern end of the Big Island would be home to the Kua region, and the southernmost coffee farms in the America. Our drive down Highway 11 was like the coffee-country version of going to Napa or Sonoma. However, instead of coming across a winery every half mile, we couldn’t help but run into enough coffee farms to fill the every Peet’s cup in the Bay Area.

We had turned onto South Point Road and chose to stop for a while at Paradise Meadows, a small coffee/macadamia nut/honey farm where our daughters were more interested in a group of pets birds than any of the flavored macadamia nuts on sale. Coffee is big business around here, and paying $25 for a seven-ounce bag of the local 100 percent Peaberry is as common as seeing Spam on a restaurant’s breakfast menu.

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South Point. You can’t get any farther south in the U.S.

From Paradise Meadows, we got back onto South Point Road. Fewer roads have been more appropriately named. South Point Road takes you straight to South Point, also called Ka Lae, and the southernmost point in the U.S. Some people mark the occasion of their arrival by making an approximately 20-foot leap from one of South Point’s rocky cliffs into the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately, there is a ladder secured to the cliff to climb back up, because the next piece of land directly south is Antarctica.

By this time, we had been on the road for about four hours. And anyone who has kids knows what happens when you drive more than 20 minutes with them. Needless to say, they, and Megan, were complaining about being hungry. Luckily for me, we were only a few miles away from Naalehu, the southernmost town in the U.S., and home to the Punaluu Bake Shop, which bills itself as the southernmost bakery in the U.S. And it was at Punaluu where I had what must be the southernmost lunch of roast beef, rice and macaroni salad in the U.S.

But, we hadn’t come to Naalehu just for a late lunch.

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The most-“Southern” lunch spot in America.

Prior to our arrival on the Big Island, Megan had done some sleuthing about her background. Thanks to a mix of a DNA test from Ancestry, her birth father providing his mother’s maiden name, some connections on Facebook, and a Google search that brought up March 2000 obituary from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, we found where her birth grandmother was buried. And it was in the local cemetery in Naalehu, about a mile from where we had just finished lunch.

In addition to finding out where her grandmother was buried, Megan had found a photo online of her grandmother’s headstone, so we knew what to look for when we arrived at the cemetery. We wandered around for a while, tried our best to not step on anyone’s graves, and eventually found the headstone with the name we were looking for:

Sarah Sam Oi Tamondong. June 2, 1920. March 8, 2000.

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There was quite the string tying this woman, dead nearly 20 years, to Megan, myself and our daughters. Here was Megan’s grandmother, a woman whom she never knew, and whom never knew this granddaughter of hers ever existed. Yet, without her, Megan wouldn’t be here today. And I certainly wouldn’t be in this place, the southernmost cemetery in the U.S., tying generations of a family together.

And yet, even after all of this, our day of family reunions wasn’t done.

We got back on the road and headed east and north before making a pit stop at the Punaluu Black Sand Beach Park. After much wrangling and fussing on the part of our girls, we finally managed to get some decent photos that might pass muster for this year’s Christmas card. And then it was out onto Highway 11 and off to the town of Pahala for a visit with Aunt Winifred Yokoyama.

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The turtles meet the Crumlettes. Like the turtles really cared.

According to a cousin we contacted before we left for Hawaii, Winifred was the person who knew Megan’s family’s history, and speaking with her could help answer a lot of the questions we had. But, there were two spanners in the works with this plan. One was that although we knew Winifred lived in Pahala, we didn’t know where in Pahala Winifred lived. The other was that since we hadn’t been able to get ahold of Winifred before we began our Big Island adventure, she had no idea we might be showing up at her door, if we could even find it.

But, Pahala is a town of about 1,200 people. And in my experience with small towns of Pahala’s size, everyone knows everyone in such places. We found the kind of grocery store that such small towns always have. And within minutes of asking the girl at the checkout stand if she knew where Winifred lived, we, four complete strangers who were very obviously not from around town, had found out not only in what house on what street Winifred lived, but that her husband, Melvin, came into the store every morning around 6 to get a cup of coffee.

A couple of left and right turns later, and we were at the third house on the left where the folks at the store said where we would find Winifred and Melvin. Megan knocked on the door. When Melvin answered, Megan asked if Winifred was home. Melvin said yes, turned around, and within seconds, Winifred was there facing Megan.

And Megan did the only thing she could do in that situation:

“Hi,” she said. “My name’s Megan Crum. I think we are related.”

And when Megan said that she was the daughter of Curtis Dowling, and that he and Winifred had the same mother, Winifred’s face turned from one of “Who is this stranger?” to “I see it now!” Winifred and Melvin invited us inside.

For more than an hour, we sat and talked about family connections. Megan and Winnie, as Winifred told us to call her, began sharing tales and pieces of information about the family. One thing we already knew about Sarah, Winnie’s mother and Megan’s grandmother, was that she had been married three times and had 15 children.

One thing we learned was that when it came to telling Winnie and her siblings about her previous marriages, Sarah was pretty quiet about some of the important details. For example, Winnie said she never knew she had five half-siblings, including Curtis, Megan’s birth father, until another half-brother named Arnold came up and introduced himself on the day of Sarah’s funeral back in 2000. Finding out you had three brothers and two sisters that you had no idea existed tops even a heretofore unknown niece showing up unannounced with her husband and kids on your front step on a random Friday night.

We got Curtis on the phone and exchanged the names of some relatives. Megan and Winnie shared notes and contact information. We took pictures, and Winnie gave Megan a photo of Sarah. It was the first time Megan had ever seen her grandmother.

The evening had grown dark and we still had about a three-hour drive back to Waikoloa ahead of us. It was tough to pull away, but we needed to get back on the road. We like to think we will see Winnie, and Melvin, again. It will be at least a year before we get back to the Big Island, but now we have family to tie us there.

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