Not “taking a stroll” walking…more like “exploring most of Oahu on foot” walking.
Of everywhere I've stumbled across in my time here, none capture my attention like Punchbowl Cemetery. I realize that may sound a bit macabre, but it couldn't be further from the truth. Nestled atop Mount Tantalus, Punchbowl sits high atop Honolulu, offering easily the most sweeping panaroma of the city found anywhere. It's always quiet, and meticulously maintained.
To back up though….Punchbowl Cemetery is a national cemetery, demarcated as the Cemetery of the Pacific. Think, Arlington National, Island Edition. It holds many of the bodies recovered from Pearl Harbor, the recently deceased Senator Daniel Inouye, and a host of other war veterans. It isn't terribly large, but is very reverent. Also, it has served as a film location for Battleship, Hawaii Five-O, and many others.
I started coming to Punchbowl on Sunday a little over a year ago. Generally my morning consists of a trip to the gym, church, and then a stroll up to the grounds. Don't ask me how this came to be my morning routine, it just did. No reason to change it in the time since either.
Anyway, a couple of months into my trips I couldn't help but notice the same diminutive Asian woman there every Sunday. Unlike me, she wasn't someone out for a stroll, looking for a place of quiet amid a dense urban landscape. She was there to work.
Every Sunday, she would show up mid-morning with clippers, water, and flowers. Painstakingly she cuts every stray blade of grass away from one particular headstone, waters the ground completely, and leaves fresh flowers.
One week I arrived a little late to find she had already come and gone. Curious, I walked over to check the headstone she so carefully tends to every week. The name was of an Asian-American sailor that had died over twenty-five years ago. Hmm. Interesting.
The next week, I arrived at my normal time to find the same woman back tending the ground, just like clockwork. Unable to contain my inner-curiosity any longer, I waited until she was done and quietly approached her. She was overwhelmingly polite and friendly, and soon we got into a conversation about this particular headstone and how she came to be the eternal watchkeeper over it.
As it were, the headstone belongs to her father (I shall omit all names from the story out of respect). He and his family were Japanese immigrants that arrived not long before WWII. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, things were especially bad in Hawaii for those of Japanese ancestry, but he still felt compelled to join the navy, where he served out the duration of the war. He performed admirably on a submarine during that time, was highly decorated, and retired sometime in the late forties. After that, he met his wife and raised a family, all in Honolulu. Sadly, in the late 80's, he was stricken with cancer and passed rather suddenly.
His interment at Punchbowl was seen as a great point of pride by the family, and for twenty years after his passing, his wife came every week to tend to his grave. After she passed as well in 2008, the daughter took over the task. Has only missed a handful of Sundays since.
After the conversation, we went our separate ways. Each Sunday now we wave and exchange pleasantries as I make my way through the grounds. Also now, without fail, I can't help but think of this family every time I'm there and the one question it almost always brings to mind…
What are the odds that I'll ever have so profound an impact an somebody that they'll still be tending my headstone twenty-five years later? And, beyond that, would I even want them to….?