A lot of my travels were done before I can properly remember them. I was born in Kingston, NY, but can’t recall a thing about that. Possibly my first memories are of California, when my sister was born, but the memories are like small details cut from faded photographs and tell me nothing about California. Then we moved an impossibly long distance across the Pacific to the Samoan islands – and I have rain drenched memories of this place.
I learned to talk here, made my first friends here, and went to my first nursery school. I never wore shoes. I drank fresh coconut milk, I rode on a skinny horse that was tethered to a stake. The horse could only walk in a circle. There were ten kids on the horse’s back, and high up on the neck, clutching the mane was me, with my father hanging on to me, walking beside me. I ate off banana leaves. I had a cat, who was a mighty hunter. I would go into town with our nanny and chat with the villagers. I used to speak Samoan. My sister’s first words were Samoan. And then, just as we were getting settled in, we left.
We got into a propellor plane and flew back across the Pacific. The plane bounced and juddered across the sky, falling into low pressure areas, dropping like a stone then catching air again, which broke all the dishes in the gallery. My mother spent the entire flight being sick My father clutched Julie. I hung onto the window, looked out at the clouds that I was sure were the North Pole and searched for Santa’s workshop. We made a stopover in Hawaii, which I remember because our friends lived there, and I had watermelon for the first time – the most delicious fruit with the most annoying seeds I’d even eaten. We didn’t stay, though I think I would have loved it there too. We went on to California, where suddenly I had to wear shoes. We were treated to Disneyland, which gave me nightmares for ages – we were greeted at the entrance by the Pirate Captain Hook – I screamed and screamed. For me, everything was real then. There was no such thing as fiction. Then we moved back to New York, where I had started off nearly six years earlier.
We moved into an old haunted farmhouse near the Sleepy Hollow, where Ichabod Crane had met the headless horseman. It was nearly autumn. Everything was strange to me – the radiators on the walls, the way the leaves turned color and fell off the trees – the chill in the air – but I was looking forward to going to school and to seeing snow for the first time.
So what, my mother sometimes asks me, do you remember about Samoa? I remember the rainy afternoons. The sand that was everywhere. The coconut trees, and watching people climb them. I remember climbing up the flagpole. The festival on the cliffs, the torches at night, the boat rides to other islands, and the constant humidity. I remember the grass skirts for ceremonies, the dances, the songs, the music. I can recall the clothes the natives wore and some of the words they spoke. I remember the twins, and the girls who babysat us. I remember hating our nanny, and running away to hide. I remember Julie in her youpla, her seat with wheels, pushing herself along but refusing to walk. I had a red wagon. I had a swing in the livingroom. I can remember the layout of our house, and how our room had one window on the end wall, and it was narrow and screened in with louvered glass. Samoa is so much a part of me that sometimes I can close my eyes and be back there. I can still see the light, how it looked there, always a bit hazy because of the clouds, and after the rain how crystal-clear the air was. But it’s the child’s part of me – the part that saw everything for the first time that remembers Samoa. The birds, flowers, jungle, beaches, fish and buildings are unimportant. What I remember most are the faces, the voices, & pulling my red wagon down the sidewalk thinking that this was utter happiness.