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Christmas in Paradise

Christmas in Paradise

In my early 20’s, I moved to the Big Island of Hawaii. Like many people my age, living in paradise seemed like a fabulous idea that was a little less perfect when one is poor, naive and young. Especially the poor part.

I had gone to Hawaii thinking I would become a massage therapist, a great idea (theoretically) for a single mom with a degree in Anthropology looking for a career that would let me juggle my two-year-old daughter and make money on a tropical island. Unfortunately, it turns out I really can’t stand touching strangers for any reason, even if they are paying me to do so. That idea fled swiftly and I was back to my old standby, waiting tables.

I landed a job pretty quickly. The somewhat grim-faced proprietor of the Aloha Cafe in Kainaliu had only one serious question for me. “Do you surf?” she asked. “…… um, no?” I answered, not sure what the right answer was here on the island looking at the crashing waves. “Good,” she snapped. “Surfers never show for work with the surf’s up. Your hired.”

So I had a job, and found an affordable place to live – a charming coffee shack in the South Kona region only 30 miles south of town.

By charming, I mean a dilapidated structure missing significant parts of walls, roof, and floors, through which rain, rats, termites, and giant cane spiders dropped in regularly. By only 30 miles, I mean an hour of nauseatingly winding roads that could only be safely navigated at 20 miles an hour. These speeds the locals scoffed at as they tore along in their rusted out jeeps, gleefully running tourists off the narrow roads for kicks and giggles.

We had a little mailbox down on the highway that I finally gave up on after the third time the neighbors lit fireworks in it and shredded all my mail.

There was this charming thing called a catchment tank for our water, since we had no well or municipal water. It was an ancient, uncovered tank with a tattered blue tarp haphazardly tied over it in a few places. Every couple months the landlord would wander over in his shorts and ‘slippahs’ with a few gallons of Clorox and climb up to dump that in. It never did much good, but who really minds sharing your bath with a little mosquito larvae and mouse droppings?

At night, you’d think that I would sleep peacefully listening to the sound of the trade winds blow through the coffee trees. In actuality, I would lie awake sleeplessly for hours, alternately focusing on the sound of the termites chewing through the walls, or the rats munching on the avocados in the tree outside my window. Also, the fleas were everywhere and impossible to eliminate (likely because the fat, happy rats kept bringing them back right outside my window every night.)

So Hawaii was fun all right, and as Christmas drew closer, things started to feel a little grim. I had grown up in the mountains of the North Cascades, and Christmas was always glittering and cold, with loads of snow, icicles, sledding and wood-stoves to cuddle up to. Hawaii was still sticky, humid, and full of those little ants that show up by the hundreds the second you leave a single crumb out. I was tired of working all the time, and didn’t have any money for good presents, and my family was far, far away, and the cost of diapers in Hawaii was brutal. I was really just dreading the holidays.

Then, about a week before Christmas, a notice in the mail arrived. There was a package being held for us at the post office (45 minutes away). It took me two days to get time off work to get to the post office, and seeing that the huge package was from my Grandma, I didn’t want to even open it in case I would start crying and not be able to stop. I just shoved it in the very back of the car, behind Morgan in her shorts and tangled hair, and drove the long, winding way back to the coffee shack.

There was a note stuck to the bottom of the package that said, “Open BEFORE Xmas!” in commanding black Sharpie. So I gave Morgan a cup of juice and sat her down, and opened up that package.

You know what else is really weird about Hawaii? There’s no Christmas trees (unless you are really rich) because the only type of pine tree that grows there is the Norfolk Island Pine, and it’s really not at all like a Christmas tree. Plus it doesn’t smell anything like a real Christmas tree either, which is half the point of Christmas if you ask me.

So when I opened that box from my Grandma, I started bawling my eyes out as I pulled the cutest little Christmas tree you’ve ever seen out of that box, complete with miniature ornaments and a pine-scented candle to go along with it. That little bitty tree glittered and glowed and shone all the next two weeks, as we ooohed and ahhhed and gave gifts and tore wrapping paper and laughed and sat around in our Christmas shorts and tank tops, sweating in the heat, surrounded by fat happy rats and giant cane spiders and a love that traveled all the way across the ocean, wrapped us up, and made us feel like we were home.

What I am pondering:

“May you never be too grown up to search the skies on Christmas Eve.”– Unknown

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