My grandmother raised me in the Philippines for almost six years while my parents remained in America with my brother. I lived a comfortable life in my grandmother’s house. For the years I was there, I slept on the far end of my grandmother’s bedroom under the window right next to a coconut tree. Glass windows were not the norm, so there were screens to keep the bugs out. When it rained, the wooden sliding shutters would get stuck because the water would make the wood swell. I could never close the shutters by myself, so I was in constant company with the coconut tree and its song. The breeze made the leaves rustle in a unique way. Depending on the type of leaves of the tree, the tree would make its own unique sound. The tree by my window had a sound that I knew very well. It was the first sound I heard in the morning and the last sound I heard at night. But I didn’t realize how deeply it had become a part of me until many years later, when I was in Hawaii.
I have been to Hawaii three times. The first time I went was with my mom when I was a teen. We visited Maui, Oahu and Kuai. At that time I didn’t hear the trees. Maybe because we didn’t stay in a five-star hotel next to the ocean. The next two times I visited the islands was with my husband. We stayed in Maui. We always went in January so it was too cold to swim in the ocean; I preferred the pool. Even though it was rainy and cloudy, I kept to my routine of swimming laps. Standing in the pool with drops of rain and wind making the water dance, I heard it again— the coconut trees above me were singing. A flood of emotions came over me as I began to take my laps. Why did I feel so sad and lonely all of a sudden? Why did I feel like something was missing? It took me a while to figure out that what I was feeling was nostalgia for the tree that sang to me outside my window in my grandmother’s house many years ago in the Philippines.
My life before going to live with my grandmother was filled with stress and trauma as my immigrant parents left the Philippines in search of a better life for our family in America; to live the American dream. My father was in the U.S. Navy and my mother was a nurse. When we came to America, we were poor and moved around from apartment to apartment as my father was constantly transferred up and down the coast of California for his work in the navy. My parents fought continually for reasons I didn’t understand. They both had to work to take care of our family, while I, at just three years old, was left to care for my brother who was two years younger than me. I was literally a baby taking care of a baby. When I went back to the Philippines to live with my wealthy and kind grandmother, I felt like I escaped. I lived a comfortable, peaceful life during those five years with my grandmother and the song of the coconut tree. Then I had to return to my parents at the age of eleven. Life was not as chaotic, but it was far from the peace and security I enjoyed with my grandmother. Children know the difference.
I still long for that peace; it comes and goes. I dream of living in Hawaii one day. I know it’s expensive, but I won’t need much. Just a coconut tree outside my bedroom window.