Mar 23, 2006

Hawaiian Delight

Here's an essay/book chapter that I'm submitting to my writer's group. Genevieve and Nana are the same person. I need to be more intentional about what I call her. It's only a draft. Only a draft on a blog, at that. Warning: it's long. But with any luck you'll get sucked in. Yummy recipe at the end, folks!

It was 1939, a good year to be in Honolulu. Europe was on the brink of war, but Hawaii seemed safe, thousands of miles removed. Pearl Harbor and the imposition of martial law in Hawaii were two years away and undreamed of. That year, Americans saw at least two Hollywood movies featuring Hawaii: Honolulu, which starred the ever-dancing Eleanor Powell in grass skirts, and Charlie Chan in Honolulu, one in a series of comic detective stories. For now, sun, water, “aloha’s” and lavish real flower leis greeted newcomers with the promise of escape.

For Genevieve and Nancy, my grandmother and mother, the notion of escape was elusive. They had recently moved to Honolulu from Seattle, as Nana had taken a job as secretary to the President of the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce. “He was a drunk,” she would say dismissively, “I had to write all the press releases myself.” Nancy was all Genevieve had on that faraway island. A story Nana told me several times was the day the eleven-year-old Nancy was swimming in the surf and playfully ducked her head under a wave. Genevieve, terrified that she couldn’t see her daughter, rushed into the water to save her.

I don’t know who was more embarrassed, Genevieve, who had to ride the trolley back to the apartment fully dressed and without a change of clothes, or Nancy, at her mother’s hovering. (“Mother! I know how to swim!”) Genevieve sat, dripping and uncomfortable on the hot trolley, her wet dress flattering a fine figure, her auburn hair dripping, shoes squeaking, her daughter sulking. At this moment Genevieve no doubt wondered, “What am I doing here?” as she remembered her parents in Queen Anne Hill, still living in the spacious house she grew up in. Their Protestant rectitude might have even appealed to her from that distance, sweetened by her attachment to Seattle. She must have missed the wild blackberry patch across the street, her home’s generous front porch and its view of Mt. Rainier, the soothing clatter of the Counterbalance, even the long walk up and down the hill to church with her family.

But here she was, a middle-aged office worker bringing up her only daughter alone. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. She had been the Oregon State tennis champion in college, president of Alpha Gamma Delta, and the belle of the fraternities. In her senior year she had become engaged to the Oregon State men’s tennis champion, Ken. I’ve heard a couple of different reasons from Nana as to why they were engaged for years without marrying. One, that Ken had asthma and his doctor said he shouldn’t marry. Two, that Ken was saving money. Slowly.

Whatever the case, by the time the engagement had languished for seven years, Genevieve had taken a job in San Francisco, much to the chagrin of Ken and her parents. Her parents complained that her apartment building “smelled of garlic,” which in those days meant the presence not of gourmands but of immigrants. One day, Ken, having had enough, took the train down from Seattle to fetch her, perhaps with dreams of an imminent wedding in his head. We’ll never know, because Ken also had a surprise waiting for him—Nana had gotten engaged to another man.

Nana waited until the very long train trip was over to break off the engagement to Ken. How tedious the hours must have been, filled with strained conversation.

“How is your mother?”
"Fine, just fine.”
Long pause.
“Genevieve, are you all right? You seem distracted.”
“Oh, no, everything’s fine. I’m just tired is all.”

Nana always said about John, the new man, that he “swept her off her feet.” He had seen her at a dance and was drawn to her laughing eyes and shining auburn hair. So much so that he bragged to a friend, “I’m going to marry that woman!” It didn’t hurt that he was scion to a large fortune either. Nana returned to California after dispensing with the albatross Ken, and married John quickly in a private civil ceremony. The couple moved to a charming bungalow in Pasadena, the city where John already lived, and where he had grown up. Genevieve gave birth to Nancy ten months after the wedding in the spring of 1929, and the sweet domestic scene began to turn sour.

It turns out that John was not only rich, but rich, idle, and spoiled. And an alcoholic. Genevieve, not knowing a thing about alcoholism, couldn’t understand why John would be gone for days at a time, and then apologize profusely, or why one time he drove the car through the garage door. When my mother was only a toddler, Genevieve divorced him. She divorced him, a bold move for a woman in the 1930s. John’s mother Inez then offered to pay Genevieve $13,000 if she would give her Nancy. Genevieve’s fear that John’s mother would try to take Nancy may have rendered the “escape” to Hawaii more desperate than most tropical vacations.

“Back to Honolulu,” Nana thought, as she roused herself from her thoughts and disembarked from the trolley with Nancy. “What will befall us here?” she asked herself wearily. She gripped Nancy’s hand tightly.

Nancy was a tall skinny girl at this age, extremely shy, with dark braids down her back. Genevieve’s hawk-eyed protectiveness exacerbated Nancy’s low confidence and self-consciousness. But still, Nancy was a girl who knew what she wanted. And one day, playing in the sand and talking with a girl her age named Carol, Nancy picked out her next father and Genevieve’s true love.

“Where’s your mother?” asked Nancy of Carol, as they dug a moat around a lopsided castle. Genevieve, of course, was a few yards away, pretending to be engrossed in a novel.
“She’s not here. She lives in California. I’m visiting my father--they’re divorced,” she added under her breath, studiously plopping down a bucketful of sand to create a turret.
“My mother is divorced, too!” said Nancy loudly, breathlessly. Genevieve looked up from her novel.
A gentle-looking man came up to Carol. “Carol, honey, we’re going back to the hotel now. . . . Who’s your new friend?”
“This is Nancy Owsley. Her mother is divorced, too!”
“Oh,” he smiled, “I’m pleased to meet you,” he said politely in a mild Southern drawl, as he solemnly shook Nancy’s sandy hand. “I’m Colonel William Carne.” His warm brown eyes looked into hers and Nancy burst out, “My mother’s right over there. Don’t worry, she’s not really reading that book.”
“Mrs. Owsley, I’m pleased to make your acquaintance,” murmured Colonel Carne, decades later to be known to me as “Papa.”
"Colonel Carne? How do you do?” Genevieve replied, properly.

And so love began. They became engaged one day later, and married a week after that, and were not separated until Papa’s death in 1974. I was ten when I learned that he wasn’t my “real” grandfather. Nana always told me. “He was my one true love.”

A couple years after Papa’s death, Nana visited her brother Fred in Seattle, and flew to Hawaii with him and his wife to visit her relatives. At some point in their visit they were treated to a pineapple cake, which they marveled over. Nana took the recipe home with her. This cake is luscious, sweet and rich. Pineapple is one of the most sensuous fruits. Nana’s rustiest file box contains four or five handwritten copies of this recipe, perhaps for handing out to friends, who inevitably asked her for it. Ironically, this cake calls for canned pineapple, even though it is from Hawaii. But perhaps that is fitting, because pineapple isn’t even native to Hawaii; it was introduced by the Spaniards in 1813, and Hawaii is largely transplants and tourists, anyway. A place to escape to and return from. And the baking mix the recipe calls for? Because sometimes you need a shortcut to love.

The cake was a huge hit in our family. Nana, my mother and I each made it several times during my college years and shortly after. The recipe was forgotten for a long time, but right now the cake sits cooling on a baking rack on my counter, smelling rummy and rich, soaking up the sugary glaze. The cake has a new name now. It makes me think of the time, many years ago, when my mother introduced Nana to Papa, on the eve of war, on a small faraway island in the vast blue sea.


True Love Pineapple Cake

1 20-oz. can crushed pineapple
2 cups baking mix (I use Bisquick)
1 cup sifted flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sugar
¾ cup sour cream

½ cup butter
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons rum


¾ cup sugar
¼ cup melted butter
¼ cup pineapple juice

Beat until dissolved.

Drain pineapple well, saving syrup. Stir baking mix, flour, baking powder, and soda together. Beat together sugar and butter until light and creamy. Add sour cream and vanilla and mix.. Add eggs and beat one minute. Add dry ingredients and beat one minute. Mix in drained pineapple and rum. Turn into well-greased bundt pan and bake at 350 for 45 minutes. Remove from oven and spoon half the glaze over it. Let stand 10 minutes. Turn out on serving plate and pour rest of glaze over.

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