The Mamas

Mama Kei passes the great part of the day dozing on sheet of brown cardboard that softens the concrete floor of the porch just a bit. It’s the porch of the neighbor’s house, which is way more spacious and light than Mama Kei and Saitu’s own little house. The neighbors are away, there’s nobody living in that house now, so it’s at their full disposal. Her weathered round face pops up from behind her voluminous body as soon as you come around the corner. She never really sleeps although sometimes you can sneak up to here really close until she twists her heavy neck to stare you down. The not yet completely gray hair is always pulled back tightly into a round bundle, which pulls her face always a little up and towards the back, giving Mama Kei her proud and self-assured appearance. Her body has turned round and her belly resembles a barrel of something under her robes. She complains about it all the time and the doctor, who’s really nothing but an intern from the government medical college in Raro, doesn’t seem to be able to figure out what’s going on with it. When you ask her a question in English she cannot grasp she always emphatically says yes, like in yes with an exclamation point. She walks ten minutes a day, for health reasons. If the walk for some reason goes on for more than that, she has to sit down. So you can also meet her sitting on the ground in the shade of a coconut tree catching her breath. Her face is almost never without the warm and hearty smile, showing off her intact rows of teeth and clinching her eyes with little sets of wrinkles streaming back over her temples towards her sizable ears.

Mama Pi on the other hand is a skinny, wiry figure. The few times you don’t see a cigarette dangling from the right side of her lower lip, you’ll see her rolling one crouched on the ground or sitting sideways on a chair. During Sunday service in church she coughs vigorously between the passionate intonations of the famous hymns the Cook Island Christian Church has bread abundantly. Like all the ladies she wears an elaborate hat to service. I’m not sure what it is with uncovered female heads that makes the church official cringe, male heads seem to be inoffensive even if boldly uncovered. Mama Pi’s slim physique gives greatness to the headdress, which seems to be floating weightless in the sacred space over the dark brown painted oak pews. Her family is fortunate to always sit on the right side, she the foremost, Mama Kei right behind her, both of them on the window side. Towards the aisle sits Kula with little Tiana on her arms. In the following row sits Papa Saitu, suited up like all men of rank on Sunday, behind Mama Kei as in her wake. The next bench is held by the corpulent Rio, youngest of the patriarchs and husband of Kula. Papa Henry is the afterguard and shadows his better half Mama Pi from a distance but still on perfect symmetry.

The other reason that the cigarette comes off Mama Pi’s lips is when one of her explosive laughs rumbles out. She loves dance moves and always responds to any hints of getting her to twist her skeleton into one. Her left hand raises above her head, her right lies flat on her nonexistent belly while her face is held sideways Flamenco style. Just for a moment that is, she knows all to well that her frolicking days are quite a ways in the past. The pose invariably transforms into yet another rumbling and toothless giggle. Her nimble hands are the fastest on the island when it comes to weaving the hats Tongareva is famous for all over the world. Her flaccid hands fly through the air when she speaks, gesturing wildly and underlining the tremolo in her voice. Her bitterness about the young generations lack of understanding the old ways is etched into her feelings like the wrinkles in the dry skin behind her vivid eyes. “I don’t care what people say about me, I dance like we used to”, she goes, meaning that what those other people said really hurt. Those other people are the next generation living like outcasts on the back side of the village, waiting for their chance to rock the little society from the basis up towards the mean and lean modernity where humor comes from soap operas and houses get their colors through the nozzles of compressor driven spray guns. “Me and Papa Henry sometimes dance for our grandkids, showing them the way we did”, she says grabbing my arm with a clasp. I mention that Mama Kei had told us how back when they were young girls in their prime they used to go with their sailboats over to Omoka to dance. At seven their return trip upwind would begin. The mothers put their babies to sleep and started to sing. The songs would flow out into the night and rise up to the stars hanging low on the firmament. Not until after countless tacks with their shunting canoes around two in the morning would the chanting stop, once they had all arrived safely back home on their own shores. Mama Pi reinforces with vigor: “Yes, those vakas (canoes) went fast, nothing like the boats of today!” Her right hand makes a cutting gesture as if silently parting the waves held firmly in her left, obliterating light-years of expensive technology with one short swashing sound of astonishing conciseness.


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