Story and photo by Valerie Monson
“When I Went to Great-Grandma’s Stone, It Was Like I Belonged There”
— WILIAMA NAMAHOE‘S
Search for his Great-Grandmother, Kawaikoeahiokekuahiwi Wong-Hoe Kaukapu
Wiliama Namahoe at the grave of his great-grandmother, Kawaikoeahiokekuahiwi Wong Hoe Kahoukapu.
Photo: Valerie Monson
The search went on for decades. A clue here, a detour there, a question that led to an unexpected doorway. At long last, Wiliama Namahoe found himself at the culmination of his quest: he was standing at the foot of the grave of his great-grandmother who had died at Kalaupapa in 1920.
He had prepared for this moment for years,but was still caught off-guard. He fell upon the headstone and wrapped his arms around it. They were finally together: he and his great-grandmother, Kawaikoeahiokekuahiwi Wong-Hoe Kahoukapu.
“I do not know why this woman is so special to me,” he later said. “The emotions that came out of me that day I didn’t even know I had. My wife said she had never heard me cry like that except when someone else special had died.”
And, yet, it was like his great-grandmother had life again.
Wiliama’s first day at Kalaupapa was unlike any other in his 68 years. The next morning, he walked into the dining room of the comfortable Visitors Quarters that overlooks the sea.
“I woke up a changed man,” he announced. “By coming here, I thought my journey was ending, but I realize now it’s only beginning. I’m now on this journey with great-grandma.”
When Wiliama was growing up on Oahu, his family tree seemed to have many empty branches. He visited his grandmother, Violet Namahoe, every year in Hilo, but she never spoke of her own mother or any part of her upbringing. Wiliama’s father was equally quiet about his childhood. Wiliama wondered who he was.
A few years after marrying and moving to California, Wiliama and his wife, Kathy, learned they were expecting a girl. Wiliama, proud of his Hawaiian culture, returned to the islands to ask his grandmother about her Hawaiian name and if he could pass it on to his daughter.
“When I asked, she broke down and cried and cried and cried,” he said. “Soon after, we received a handwritten letter from Grandma Violet explaining what the name meant and that it was her mother’s name which had been given to her.”
The name that would connect the generations was Kawaikoeahiokekuahiwi.
Wiliama saw his past slowly unfold. His grandmother was just 7 years old in 1907 when her mother was suddenly taken from the family.
“And that was the word she used: ‘taken.’ Great-grandma Kawai was taken from them,” said Wiliama.
The little girl had no idea why her mother was forced to leave her. It would be years before she was told why her mother was taken away and where she was sent. The anguish of losing her mother in such a traumatic way at such a young age would affect Violet the rest of her life. Her pain would be passed down to her son, Wiliama’s father, who was raised by his great-grandmother’s sister. It wasn’t until Wiliama began his own search that he was able to find the answers to begin healing the family that had been torn apart so many years ago.
The healing would come from his growing relationship with the great-grandmother he never knew.
With her name, but little else, Wiliama began his search in earnest around 1984. By 2008, he was at a standstill when he learned of the research started by Ka ‘Ohana O Kalaupapa in compiling the names of all those sent to Kalaupapa. At that point the ‘Ohana had only gathered information on people sent to Kalaupapa from 1866 through 1896 and was still assembling the information. So Wiliama had to wait.
The breakthrough came when, on the same day, ‘Ohana historian Anwei Law not only found his great-grandmother’s name (misspelled in the records), but a photograph. Kawai now had a face. Today her framed picture hangs on a wall in the Namahoe home.
Unfortunately the search for her grave remained futile. There was no one named Wong-Hoe in the Kalaupapa Cemetery Directory. Like thousands of others, the stone that might have marked Kawai’s grave had most likely deteriorated over time or was washed out to sea by the 1946 tsunami.
The entry photo of Kawaikoeahiokekuahiwi Wong Hoe taken in 1907
Photo: Hawai‘i State Archives
Meanwhile, Wiliama’s interest in Kawai was spreading to his family, especially to his daughter who bore her name. The first Kawai – Kawai the Great or Great-grandma Kawai as she is known to the Namahoes – was born on a ranch in Hanapepe on Kauai in 1879. She was named for an important event that coincided with her birth: the discovery of a long sought-after stream deep in a valley. Her father was among a party that had been searching for days without success. Finally, they could hear the water, but still couldn’t see it. They looked all day and, as night fell, they could still hear it. Not wanting to leave when they were so close, a torch was lit that illuminated the dense forest and showed them the way to the hidden stream.
When her father returned home and learned he had a daughter, she was named Kawaikoeahiokekuahiwi: Finding the water in the mountains by the lighting of a torch.
The young Kawai joined Wiliama on his mission. She asked: could great-grandma have remarried at Kalaupapa? She was only 28 when she was forced to leave home. Had she managed to overcome the sorrow of separation to find love again?
Fortunately, ‘Ohana board member Ka`iulani Puahala Hess, whose parents were at Kalaupapa, had recently completed a volunteer project for the ‘Ohana: compiling the Marriage Records of Kalaupapa. Young Kawai’s question was the torch that led to her namesake. The records revealed that the elder Kawai had married George Kahoukapu on March 12, 1910 and information from the Department of Health showed that the couple had three children: Kaleiheana, Lydia and John. Another search of the cemetery directory by Ka ‘Ohana O Kalaupapa was equally fruitful. Mary K. Kahoukapu (her stone had the same death date as the records for Kawai Wong-Hoe) was buried near the top of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints Cemetery with a view of the towering cliffs and the sea. Wiliama got more records as additional proof.
Plans began for a trip from California to the only place where the journey could end: Kalaupapa. Wiliama asked the ‘Ohana to help with arrangements and on a sunny October day, he stepped off the little plane beneath the towering cliffs with Kathy at his side. He soon found himself at the foot of his great-grandmother’s final resting place, nearly 30 years after his mission began.
“I will always remember that moment like it is today,” Wiliama said a year later, his voice breaking. “Even though it was so emotional for me, a peace came over me and I felt nothing but calm. When I went to great-grandma’s stone, it was like I belonged there.”
Kawaikoeahiokekuahiwi Namahoe, the daughter of Wiliama and Kathy Namahoe, proudly holds the photo of the great-grandmother whose names she carries.
Photo: Wiliama Namahoe