By: Kailanianna Ablog
I was holding her hand when she took her last breath.
Months of declining heath prepared me for my final goodbye, but nothing could have steeled me against the pain of knowing that this amazing, spunky woman would no longer be a part of this world.
Her name was Rita Kazuma – and she was my grandmother.
Grandma Rita was born in Koror, the capital of Palau. She was a member of the Esuroi clan, one of the servant houses to the high chief of Palau. She would later become the head of the clan.
Unlike many Western cultures, Palauan culture, as well as others in the Pacific, are matriarchal. Usually, the grandmother of the family would give the babies Palauan names. Following this tradition, Grandma Rita was given the name “Dengir.”
According to my family’s oral history, “Dengir” was the name of my great-great grandmother, who was also the head of the Esuroi clan and raised Grandma Rita. My father, who later confirmed with Aunty Maria, Grandma’s sister, told me that the Palauan names given belonged to our ancestors. This naming practice allows us to remember and honor those who have come before us.
Grandma Rita followed this custom when I entered the world. I am the first-born daughter, niece, and granddaughter on both of my parents’ sides. Like the powerful women before her, she gave me her name – “Dengir.”
From the day she named me, I became her namesake, part of a living legacy.
Grandma taught me what she knew about God, how to braid palms and pray the rosary – things that I consider fond memories, even if I no longer identify as Catholic.
When I started getting interested in Korean language and culture, Grandma happily walked me to the Korean supermarket in our neighborhood after church; she would treat me to Korean snacks, my favorite being “hoddeok,” a sweet pancake that is often filled with cinnamon syrup and nuts. She was the person I shared my first hoddeok with. She also purchased one of my first KPOP albums, which I still own to this day.
If Grandma was not in Hawaii during times of celebration, such as Christmas or my birthday, she would send cards in the mail. She would always address them to “KK Dengir,” and despite “Dengir” not being my legal name, it always brought a smile to my face.
Grandma fulfilled many roles throughout her life. While working at Mount Carmel School in Saipan, she was a teacher, counselor, and disciplinarian, positively influencing the lives of those she interacted with.
The word I would use to describe Grandma Rita has been, and always will be, “love.” She taught me this through her interactions with me: through the food she cooked, through the lessons she taught, through her act of surprising me at my high school graduation. I remember I almost cried when I first saw her.
The last thing I told my grandma before she died was “You’ve done a lot of good here.” After she passed, I walked out of her room, my heart sore and mind reeling because there were no longer two “Dengirs.”
I was the only one left.
It has been almost two years since Grandma Rita passed, and I am not healed. The fact that I got food poisoning the same day of her death seemed to further emphasize that not only did my mind and heart know there was a loss, but my body did too.
And we were all hurting. We still do.
If I see her in photos, tears well up in my eyes. Talking about her causes a knot to form in my throat. But as much as I miss Grandma Rita, I know now that she is not fully gone. She runs through my veins, just as our ancestors do.
I am my Grandmother’s namesake. I carry her name – and the name of the women that came before me. Even if I will never hug Grandma again or speak with her in this life, her power and wisdom continue to remind me to love instead of hate, understand instead of pass judgement. To remember where I came from.
Grandma, this one is for you. I love you and miss you every damn day. I hope you’re doing alright up there.
About the author:
We are excited to introduce our intern, Kailanianna Ablog! Kailani will contribute to Lady Pasifika via blogs and to our magazine in 2021. We are excited and honored to have her join our small team. Kailani brings experience as a writer and editor for Ka Leo O Hawai’i as well as her love for writing and living life as a Pasifika young woman. Please welcome our newest intern!
Kailanianna is a Spring 2020 graduate from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa with a BA in Anthropology and certificates in Korean and Ethnic Studies. She has held multiple editor positions, including Opinions Editor and Co-managing Editor for Ka Leo O Hawaiʻi, UHM’s student newspaper. Kailanianna is of Filipino, Chamorro and Palauan descent, and hopes to highlight the stories and strength of her fellow Pacific Islander women. She is also a proud MilSO and enjoys baking, exploring creative avenues, and drinking boba tea.