What I Did on My Vacation

By Cornelia Read

(Apologies because this is going to be totally random. I’ve flown 12,000 miles in the last couple of weeks and am still kind of messed up from the final redeye. Also, it was a strange vacation. As you will see.)

I remember the first time I stepped foot on Oahu. It was 1967, I was four years old, my parents had just split up, and it had been a damn long flight from New York.

They still had roll-up stairs at the Honolulu airport instead of jetways, and when we walked down them to the tarmac young women in grass skirts placed white plumeria leis around my mother’s, my, and my little sister’s necks. Then someone took our picture, and we walked inside and poured ourselves glasses of fresh pineapple juice out of the complimentary dispensers–the kind of perpetual-waterfall aquarium things they used to have on all respectable five-and-ten luncheon counters.


I remember being amazed that the photograph of us in our leis was waiting for us the following day at the drugstore near my godmother Charla’s house, where we stayed for the first few weeks before we rented our own place on Portlock Road near Hawaii Kai.


(It was apparently kind of a common ritual, which is cool. They don’t do it anymore though.)

We lived there for about eight months, in that house on Portlock. My mom remembers that the rent was $300 a month. We were right on the beach, with a view of Diamond Head, and the house was most excellently funky. It was actually two military officer’s bungalows someone had bought at auction and stuck together, so that there were odd features like interior windows that opened into closets and stuff.

It no longer exists, of course, having been replaced by a McMansion that I believe sold for five mill, the last time out. 


Ho hum.

The yard looks like this now–big pool, etc. We used to just run through the sprinkler. I mean, there’s a beach RIGHT THERE behind those bushes, too. But whatever.

I can remember every room, though, especially the lanai (covered outdoor porch, for the uninitiated.) The renters before us had been stewardesses, so the walls of this were decked in vintage travel posters, about ten layers deep: Paris, Venice, Tahiti… all in that swirly mid-century style that JetBlue apes these days along its own jetways.

It’s bizarre to have the 3-D walkthrough of a house that no longer exists in my head–down to what each of the doors sounded like. For some reason I spent about fifteen minutes trying to describe it to my husband when I was in labor with our twin daughters, back in ’94, right before they stopped my epidural and wheeled me into the room where everything got really intensely serious and I was too busy screaming obscenities for any further nostalgic architectural anecdotes.



I was just back there over New Year’s, for Aunt Charla’s youngest son’s wedding. It was really trippy. Felt like home, in so many ways, even though I hadn’t been there in twenty-one years.


There were all these barefoot little blond kids running around the edges of the lawn, in twilight, and I kept wondering what had happened that I wasn’t streaking through the half-dark with them instead of sitting with the grownups inside the tent. Didn’t seem right at all.

I mean, even my daughter Grace is too old for that. But still, it’s imprinted, you know?

I lived in that Portlock house for another six months when I was eight. I learned to swim there, went to my first school (we didn’t have to wear shoes–they’d send notes home if we had a field trip reminding our parents we couldn’t go barefoot.)

I spent almost the entire time wandering around topless in a little yellow-and-white aloha print bikini bottom that tied at the hips, in ’67, though I remember wearing white Navajo moccasins, thriftstore lederhosen, love beads, and a Primo Beer t-shirt with King Kamehameha on it the day I first hiked up Diamond Head.

The first time I ever heard “Light My Fire” on the radio we lived there, and I remember going into the funky old bathroom while Mom was taking a shower one morning to tell her that Hendrix had just died. I think I was eight.

We had a young guy who was AWOL from the army, hoping not to get sent back to Vietnam, hide out with us for about a week. We took him to the Honolulu Zoo and he went incognito in a wig and bell-bottomed pantsuit of Mom’s. I thought that was hysterical.

I still speak pretty decent pidgin, it turns out. And feel like a local even though I haven’t been in forever. (When I was little, I thought “haole” meant tourist. Tremendously disappointing to discover it meant “white person,” and that I was one.)

I still remember my local history–that Kamehameha pushed all the opposing soldiers off the edge of the Pali, to unite the islands, and that Captain Cook’s remains were chopped up and laid out on a big rock, from whence he was eaten, some Hawaiians having mistaken him for dog. And good riddance, I say, though that’s not my kind of luau.

I am also well aware that you shouldn’t be carrying any pork in your car when you drive over the Pali, because Pele the fire goddess will con you into picking her up as a hitchhiker and steal it from you, and she is NOT someone you want to piss off.

Meanwhile, Mom met Michael (my stepfather #1) at a cocktail party in Honolulu early in our ’67 sojourn. The first time he took her out to dinner, he asked whom she’d voted for in the last election. When she said “Goldwater” he called her a dumb cunt, and she went to the ladies room and tried to climb out the window, but it was too small so she went back to their table instead.

Years later I asked her why, in that case, she’d married him, and she replied that she felt like such a failure as a twenty-eight-year-old divorcee at loose in the world that he seemed sort of astute when he said that, rather than just an asshole. Live and learn.

They went to see Hendrix on Maui together, and at the Monterey Pop Festival after we’d all moved to California.

They also used to get stoned with friends and then all go down to Waikiki to stare into these giant golden floodlights out in front of some hotel. Apparently when you looked up, everything was totally purple for a couple of minutes. They called this “doing Purple Haze.”

Last week we took Michael out for dinner for his 85th birthday. He was kind of cranky at first, but I got him talking about when he was a press agent for Edward R. Murrow, and about an autographed group photo in his apartment of Betty Grable and Red Skelton and Ethel Merman and Basil Rathbone and a whole bunch of other people that I remembered from when I was little–from some early TV special he promoted (just Googled it. “Shower of Stars.”)

(This would be Betty Grable, on set. Sorry about the watermark.)

Michael’s always been kind of a pain in the ass with a nasty temper, but he was relatively nice to me when I was little so I don’t mind kissing butt a little to assuage his ego.

I also asked him to remind me how to say the Japanese phrase he memorized, back in the day, which I never remember. This time I wrote it down on my iPhone: “Tayo agay detekoy.” That means “Come out of the cave with your hands up.” Michael did five tours in the Pacific during WWII, semper fi.

He also remembers storming a beach one time that the Marines had already won and lost once… there was billboard erected above them in the sand that read “Kill The Little Yellow Bastards!” with Bull Halsey’s signature inscribed below. Michael said the average life expectancy on that beach was seventeen seconds.

This all really made him hate war, especially the Vietnam conflict. He’s pretty much responsible for my political worldview, for which I’m grateful. I learned to despise Nixon and Kissinger and Joe McCarthy from him, and still have a picture of Angela Davis that he took in the Seventies on my desk.

He worked for the U.S. government’s foreign office or something in the field in the late Fifties, during this border war between India and Pakistan. He said he realized pretty quickly that both sides were wearing American-tailored uniforms, listening to American military advisers, and firing American-made weapons at each other, to a bunch of Yankee warmongers’ great profit.

Michael was asked to sit in on a meeting there, considering new titles for US-AID’s magazine (which had been called “Food for the Poor” or whatever up to that point.) The committee wanted his PR expertise, saying they hoped a new name could broadcast the greater scope of work being done by the organization, blah blah blah.

Michael leaned back in his chair and said “so why don’t you call it ‘Guns for Dictators’?” then strode out of the room and resigned. First person ever to do that while abroad, apparently.

Anyway, the kind of guy you give way to, on his 85th birthday, you know?

Meanwhile, the lady we were staying with on this visit–my very favorite babysitter back in the day–was apparently an early lover of Obama’s. She said he was a great guy even in his teens, and confirmed that he did indeed inhale.

Right on, Barry.

I first met this woman when I was five. She and her sisters lived down the beach, hence the babysitting. One of her nieces and I now have the same publisher (curiouser and curiouser.)

We were reminiscing about old times on Oahu and in California (she came and stayed with us in Carmel for a while), when she asked “do you remember the time Michael had a gun and wanted to shoot himself in the middle of the night, so I snuck you and your little sister out to the car and drove you around for a few hours?”

“Yeah,” I replied, though I hadn’t thought of it for decades. I’d been eight, my sister six, and this wonderful lady would’ve been about seventeen, at the time. The Sixties were kind of boundary-free…. So much so that they kept going for a good chunk of the early Seventies, as I recall.

We spent a lot of time on her lanai talking story, as the locals say. It was really beautiful. So is she.

So, I don’t know… my childhood. Kind of surreal. I remember all this stuff and am somehow not surprised I ended up being graced with a somewhat noir outlook.

I’m glad Grace got to come with me, to see all of this. Especially to meet Michael because hey, at 85, that could be a limited-time opportunity.

I did take her to do some wholesome touristy stuff, too, like climbing Diamond Head.


It’s all hollowed out near the top, with all these cool observation posts and gun emplacements and tunnels.

She was a little sick of me taking her picture, once we’d reached the summit.

And I have to say this attitude did not mellow over subsequent days. 


When she wasn’t being forced to pose, she was great, though.


Also, I got to do some very nostalgic Hawaii kid stuff, like eat Li Hing Mui and other kinds of “crack seed” (mostly Chinese preserved fruit flavored with sugar, salt, licorice, and saccharine–kind of an acquired taste.)


And have manapua and pork hash dumplings for breakfast in Chinatown.

And now we’re back in New Hampshire, which seems like kind of a lame place to move after your first divorce, by comparison (mine was final on December 13th. YEE HA!)

(view from car windshield at airport bus parking lot in Portsmouth, NH. Note conspicuous lack of palm trees.)

Luckily, I seem to be able to relive stuff in my head rather well. Hope that gets me through February.

Happiest of new years to all you ‘Ratis. May you and yours have good health, good luck, good prospects, and a lot of gentle time to talk story with those you love….


32 thoughts on “What I Did on My Vacation

  1. Karen in Ohio

    Love that clip, Cornelia! Thank you. And thanks for identifying one of my favorite artists for me. I never realized he was Hawaiian.

    My uncle was stationed at Pearl Harbor in the 50’s and 60’s, so we grew up with cousins in the islands, and with letters on air mail stationery telling us all about the place, which back then was very different than it is today. When I met my husband 31 years ago he said he’d been to 48 of the 50 states; he’d not yet been to Alaska and Hawaii. I asked him to take me with him if he ever went to Hawaii, and when he finally did, about 10 years ago, we went together. What a lovely, gentle place. We said we’d go back, but haven’t yet, although we did fly over the islands on our way to Australia a few years ago. It’s such a LONG trip from Ohio.

    Love all the photos, too. Thank you again.

  2. Sylvia

    What a wonderful tour! Love the posing for photos…

    Yes, hoping for a calm (and brilliant?) 2010 after a very stormy 2009.

    PS – my first book arrived today from Tess Gerritsen. I’m smiling!

  3. Leslie


    Thanks for the trip down memory lane! My Dad was stationed at Hickam AFB and we lived up near Wahiawa, grades 8, 9 & 10. The manapua truck used to stop by the high school every day at lunch time… when I got back to the mainland no one seemed to know what manapua was! Getting shave ice with ice cream at a place on the north shore is another culinary memory along with avocados on toast for breakfast, from the tree in the yard. I never got hooked on crack seed, but had many addicted friends.

    Such a lovely, relaxed lifestyle where pantyhose were unheard of and getting dressed up meant wearing a muumuu with your grass mat slippers. The scent of plumeria brings me back instantly to collecting the blossoms with friends to make leis. Your lanai pictures bring back memories of ours and long, warm evenings listening to the geckos.

    I remember coming back to the mainland and laughing at the cheesy C&H sugar commercials that they’d never show in Hawaii. I’m sure it has changed so much I wouldn’t recognize the pictures in my memories.

  4. Cornelia Read

    Sylvia, thank you!

    Rae, *you* are fabulous, as always.

    Leslie, you had a manapua *truck*? I am so jealous!! And I wish they had one in New Hampshire. Thanks for sharing your memories.

  5. pari noskin taichert

    Thank you for the trip to Hawaii and the wonderful clip.

    I remember "crack seed," though we didn’t call it that in Hong Kong. I got to the point with the street vendors that I just stopped asking what things were and enjoyed them. What I didn’t know, couldn’t hurt me.

    Have a glorious new year. May your most cherished wishes come true.

  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Cornelia

    What a fabulous collection of memories, old and new. I wonder what Grace’s take will be on the whole experience, when she looks back on it in years to come?

    Wishing you health, luck and happiness in 2010!

  7. Cornelia Read

    I wish you health, luck, and happiness right back, dear Zoe. And Grace might forgive me in the years to come for posting those pictures, but I probably won’t tell her for at least a decade.

  8. Cornelia Read

    JT, you are a sweetie. It’s kind of exhausting in my head, though. I feel like I need a vacation from my vacation. And I’m in awe of your post yesterday. I wish I could live in your head, I feel like my life would be way more purposeful and less anxiety-ridden–and interesting!

  9. BCB

    Cornelia, I really hope I get to meet you someday. I suspect I could sit and just listen to you talk for hours. The pictures are great, as always, but it’s your words that are compelling.

    All the best to you and yours in the coming year, whatever that means to each of you. I think you’ll get through February just fine. I am a bit concerned about March, however… Can’t wait to hear your version of winter in the northeast. 😉

  10. Rob Gregory Browne

    I moved to Hawaii around the same time, Cornelia, when I was eleven years old. Except for a short stint away living with my girlfriend in Santa Barbara, and later, after she married me for four years in L.A., I lived in Honolulu until I was in my thirties and my career forced me to move to California.

    We go home as often as possible. Usually once a year, although because of conferences lately, I haven’t been able to go back with everyone. Went this past summer, however, and had the best vacation I’d had in recent memory.

    Home sweet home.

  11. Cornelia Read

    BCB, we should have coffee. Or maybe absinthe. I’m just happy that February is the shortest month. That’s it’s only positive attribute, in my experience.

    And Rob, no wonder I like you so much. Where did you guys live? I’ll bring the cherry seed to the next Bcon…

  12. Paula

    Love going down memory lane with….I had my honeymoon on Oahu, we took many trips
    back. Jealous of your childhood there. Love Hawaii!!!!!
    Enjoyed the clip of OZ one of my favorite artist..have many of his CD’s.
    Beautiful way to end your blog.

  13. Rob Gregory Browne

    When I first moved to Hawaii, we lived for six months in Kailua. Then we went over the hill to Kahala, which was then mostly called Waialae. After a couple years there, we moved to Hawaii Kai. Last stop with my parents was a condo in Waikiki, and finally with my wife and kids in Aina Haina.

    I’ll bring the cuttlefish.

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