Maybe it was supposed to happen like this: Now I must experience Olosega without my husband as a filter. Days pass. We pray, we clean fish, we weave laufala into baskets, we make the umu, we clean graves. “What better way to break the ice with family?” asks Uncle Tommy as he supervises the painting of an elaborate grave marker that belongs to his great-grandfather. Tommy is assisted by his dimpled 8-year-old son, William; “nourishment for the soul for the young ones” he calls the day as he bends over to wipe paint off William’s face.
I am in a reverie watching when, “Careful, don’t step on our baby sister!” warns cousin Manuel, somewhat to my horror. The black lava rock at my feet marks the grave of the baby who became sick while sailing into Olosega and didn’t make it. The island still has only a part-time staffed infirmary, though there is hope that this will soon change, as I discover when I wander solo through Olosega village and run into rehearsals for Flag Day, the bittersweet commemoration of the first raising of the American flag in Manu‘a in 1904. The Olosega minister has composed songs and dances that convey a wish list to be presented to dignitaries in neighboring Ta‘u: They will be asking for a better infirmary and improvements to the road and harbor. I meet several Olosega women at the rehearsal. I befriend Alofa, the school librarian, who later shows me the painstaking work she has done reconstructing book spines, even though more and more kids just want to watch videos. I meet Sala, a mother of seven who, as the island’s only certified computer teacher, has the momentous job of introducing technology. “The kids learn fast,” she sighs. “But now, as much as we need to see the world, now the whole world sees us.” To be sure, I am realizing, life in cyberspace is the very antithesis of Olosega, which is all about being here. As I learned from my missing suitcase, you use whatever you bring and learn to do without. Well, with the exception of Flag Day, when it doesn’t hurt to put in a few requests.
Back at the inn, the reunion continues with badminton and volleyball. I am becoming increasingly amphibious, one day choosing to wade along the coast rather than walk the road. I pass my husband’s cousin Anetone and his two teenage charges from Pago. The boys have shed the hip-hop duds and edgy adolescent looks they sported on their first days here and now seem beatific as they haul to shore buckets of matapisu (limpets), octopus and reef fish.
When I swim, I watch yellow-striped Moorish idols feeding on a huge brain coral. When they see my shadow, they vanish in an instant. Next, I hover horizontal above an implacable seahorse that seems lost in its own reverie. No two moments are alike: The ocean is a chameleon, like Olosega itself. This tiny isle, I sense, holds a space vast enough to tie the past and present together forever.
Is Olosega really so timeless, or have I been consuming too many salt peanuts and Vailima beers from those Samoan stores? Answers vary, but the general consensus among Puleisili’s family is that the island can’t stay like this forever. Travel to Olosega might still be negligible, but an inn does exist here where before it did not. Change can be good business, Peka the innkeeper’s wife shrugs in her easy, candid manner. “We had a group of ham radio operators here. They wanted to see the umu and how we eat. We had Italians who wanted to watch us live,” she says without a hint of irony.
On the last night of the reunion, all the adults participate in a Samoan-style council on an issue of ultimate importance for the island: Who will next take the matai title? Some matai have sold their lands, and no one in this family wants to see that happen. Even my husband has roused himself from his sickbed for this momentous occasion. “When I look at the talent and intelligence right here in this family, I am gratified that Olosega will always be our home,” pronounces Rosalie after the final decisions are agreed on.
After one last breakfast of fresh papaya and coconut, a caravan of trucks heads to the airport. My husband and I will stay on in Olosega a little longer, but I ride out to the airport to say farewell to the family members who are leaving. On the tarmac, we hug and pledge passionately to stay in touch by e-mail. On the way back, in the cab beside Laolagi, I think what a meager substitute e-mail will be. I miss everyone already. I realize that I am only half-listening to Laolagi as he discusses Olosega’s hottest debate: whether extending the asphalt road will tempt the island’s drivers (all fifty or so of them) to speed.
When the Asaga Inn comes into view, I am hit in the solar plexus by its loneliness. Where there were tents and volleyball nets set up, there is now the unobstructed horizon. Where there hung dozens of sarongs on the plumeria tree, now there is only one left, whipped by the wind into a ragged knot. Shell ashtrays are grinning, scattered and empty. As I stand in the parlor, the straight-backed chairs seem pompous without the grace of my husband’s distinctive elders. The whole room seems to beg for their presence. I have met the ghosts of Olosega, I realize, and they are us. Everyone who comes here brings something special, as if no arrival were random. Everyone who leaves leaves behind a void, acutely felt in a place so small. I sit down in one of the chairs and realize that now I, too, am haunted by Olosega. I think of Puleisili’s words, “Wherever I am, I am an Olosega man.” How I understand them now—and the comfort of the ghosts who will await our return. HH