The Koa Desk

My father, who was a doctor, had a large desk made of native koa, a wood much valued in the Hawaiian Islands, which was said to have once belonged to the high chiefess, Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani. One evening when I was ten years old, he called me into the library and gestured toward the desk. Iʻd been reading The Count of Monte Cristo and had an exalted reverence for titled ladies of any nation or color, so that a desk once used by a princess, even so unlikely a princess as a fierce-looking Hawaiian woman of almost three hundred pounds, was a hallowed object. My fatherʻs papers were on the desk, a few medical journals, some books, a heavy black telephone. He waited for me to speak and when I said nothing, he led me to the front of the desk, where I saw, carved deeply into the wood, my full name, Susan Paine Moore, in capital letters. It would have taken some time and care to dig the letters, and to finish them with such precision, requiring patience as well as dexterity, and not least, the right tools.

 

 

Tantalus house
The shingled house in Tantalus, full of koa furniture, where I lived as a child. The new houses since built in the five acres of garden have been disappeared by W.

 

I was very shocked. I crouched on the lauhala mat to give myself time to think, fitting my fingers neatly into the deep grooves. I did not know what to say, intensely aware of my father, with his amused skepticism, standing behind me. The library led to a screened sleeping porch, and I could see that the sky had begun to darken, the mynahs raucously jostling for perches in the banyan at the edge of the lawn. The freshly-dug bed that Ishi, the gardener, and I had been preparing for our gardenia cuttings was already in shadow and it occurred to me that we had not chosen a sufficiently sunny place for my mother’s favorite flower. While I knew, even if my father did not, that I was for once absolved of the misery of deceit, the small lies of childhood that serve as protection against the seemingly irrational and arbitrary demands set by adults, it served me little if he chose not to believe me. It would even make my supposed crime worse, in that Iʻd ruined his desk, and then lied about it. I worried, too, that the desk, now defaced, would no longer be the desk of a princess. 

 

Ruth_Keelikolani,_retouched_photo_by_J._J._Williams
Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani

 

I turned to face him and told him that I did not do it. He sighed and took a breath. “Because,” he said slowly, offering me his hand, “you are a child who does not lie, I will —- despite what is here in front of us — believe you.” As he pulled me to my feet, I realized that he sounded a little disappointed, whether in my dependability or in the fact that our family harbored a vandal, I couldn’t tell.

I was relieved to be let off so easily, but also confused. I knew that extreme situations tend to reveal character, if only for a moment or two. But was I really a child who did not lie? I wasnʻt convinced. And if I were that child, what an enormous burden such rectitude would be. I knew that my father was fair-minded, and sometimes even kind, but more interesting to me was the ease with which he accepted moral diffusion. He was, at best, detached — a perfect radiologist, each day deciphering the black and white x-ray images that served as reminders of the disembodiment that awaited all of us, rarely touching or even seeing a patient in the flesh, a diagnostician consulted by his fellow physicians. He had shrewdly chosen a medical speciality in which he did not need to offer solace, or even explanation. His ample charm was not wasted on strangers.

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Koa settee, nineteenth-century

 

I was still young enough that illusion and reality hovered at the same just-accessible level of consciousness, and I did not trouble myself further about the desk. I donʻt think that my father, who did not have the excuse of inexperience, rather the opposite, did, either. His habitual gallantry was sufficient to conceal his distraction, and in this instance, as perhaps in others of which I am unaware, it worked in my favor.

As I write this, I realize how little I know about him. My mother told me one or two stories about his childhood, but he himself said very little. I was rarely alone with him. Once when my mother was in the hospital, he asked if I would go with him to a National Geographic lecture at the local high school about New Guinea. I was very excited. I wet my short hair and spent a frustrating hour trying to tamp down the cowlick at the back of my head. I wore one of my mother’s embroidered cashmere cardigans, taken from her closet, and I wonder now if he recognized it as belonging to her. It certainly smelled like her. I like to think that he sought to amuse and distract me, but it is more likely that in his restlessness and boredom he simply wanted something to do — there were not a lot of choices in Honolulu in 1955. It is also possible, I now see, that he was meeting someone there.

My father did not spend much time with his children, and when he did — driving us to school in the morning, for example — he did not instruct or amuse us with tales of his childhood. Once my mother was dead, there was no one to tell us family stories until much later when I found myself in the tenuous care of my grandmother, and by then, I had already created my own myths. Even those memories that originate in photographs were mysterious to me. Who is the solemn man holding me in his lap? Where is the house with the white pillars? Once we were alone as children — that is, no mother and a ghost of a father — there were no bedtime tales, no favorite jokes passed from one generation to the next, no descriptions of the day that my brother Rick was born, or my sister Tina’s tumultuous first day of kindergarten. It was then that I began to invent stories, incorporating the scraps and hints that I’d heard along the way, which I whispered each night to my brothers and sisters, soothing them to sleep.

christmas tantalus 1955
Tantalus, Christmas Eve, 1955
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8 thoughts on “The Koa Desk

  1. porterstoddard August 27, 2016 / 3:58 am

    LOVELY!!

    Sent on the new Sprint Network from my Samsung Galaxy S®4.

    Like

  2. Jill & John August 27, 2016 / 4:33 am

    Terrific. Is this the introduction to your next book? Luv Jill

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Like

  3. Jill & John August 27, 2016 / 4:37 am

    The settee is most likely a Henry Weeks piece. Luv Jill

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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  4. Billy Q August 27, 2016 / 8:43 am

    Ipassddona new koa table to Ninia, it did not have anyone’s name carved on it, but oh the tales itcould tell.

    Like

  5. Una Forde August 27, 2016 / 10:51 am

    Oh Suzanne, what a beautiful touching piece of writing. Another book in the making. X

    Like

  6. Penelope Tree August 27, 2016 / 1:26 pm

    Beautiful

    Like

  7. Flora Biddle August 28, 2016 / 10:50 pm

    What a lovely story, and h
    ow sad. You touch lightly as a butterfly on all that was missing in your childhood. What stays vivid, despite all successes and joys. I learn from and cherish your memories, looking forward to more. . . with love from Flora

    Like

  8. Peter Davis August 28, 2016 / 11:08 pm

    Very moving story, dear Susanna. Your “Paradise” subject title now feels more ironic than ever. Your mother dead, your father a ghost: how desperate you must have been to make or imagine a better place for yourself. And you have, brilliantly.

    Love,

    Peter

    Like

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