Teriiotemana and Puna


On the island of Tahiti, a woman clad in a red sweatshirt huddles over the project on which she is working. Her back is bent, one of her eyes has no sight, but still her fingers flit rapidly among the fine strands of pandanus, weaving them into baskets, hats, and place mats.

The work is not new to her. After eighty years, her hands have become old friends with the reed-like material she twists and bends and controls with great skill. Her hands are busy because she has a goal: For the third time she looks forward with almost breathless anticipation to New Zealand—the temple, endowments, sealings, and baptisms.

These were all vague abstractions to Teriiotemana during the many long years she sat in the corner of her bamboo cookshack weaving the items that were to finance her trip, penny by penny, to that faraway land of the Maori and the temple of the Lord. While she weaved from the early hours of the morning to the twilight hours, her husband, Puna, carried out his part of their plan. He hoed and weeded among the cabbages, tomatoes, and onions that would one day be sold to add pennies to their savings.

The years went by; the weaving and the hoeing went on. The pennies grew, but they grew slowly. Then one day, while the rest of the world was opening presents and taking stockings down from mantelpieces, Teriiotemana and Puna walked solemnly up the steep steps of the New Zealand Temple. They walked as if in a dream, oblivious to the cheerful voices of temple workers who spoke in a strange tongue, oblivious also to the hushed voices of their own Tahitian group as they whispered in awe of the realization that they had arrived in New Zealand and were to go through the temple on Christmas Day.

That was in 1963. For fifteen days this group of Tahitian Saints, the first ever to go to the temple, were there each morning at six o’clock; and they were there at midnight when, after many sessions, the temple closed.

To many of them, when they finally boarded the plane and headed back 2,300 miles to Tahiti, this was a dream fulfilled, but to Teriiotemana it was only the beginning. Resting her head against the seat and closing her eyes, she began to recount the temple experience, step by step, trying to fasten indelibly in her mind the words heard in the temple. This remembering experience was to continue through many restless nights long after she was back in her own frail bamboo hut in Tubuai. When she stepped from the plane at Papeete’s new airport and when she said goodbye to the other Tahitian Saints and prepared to depart with her husband on the seven-day journey by boat to her home island, she knew that the weaving must begin again, but this time it would be with more earnestness than ever.

“Will you be going with us again next year?” President Thomas R. Stone asked as he helped her from the plane. Next year, next year, next year—the words tumbled in her mind and tangled in their own impossibility. How could the labors of so many years be repeated and crowded into a single year? And then there was the question of health—and even of life itself. “If God gives me strength and if he gives me breath,” she found herself saying. “You can do it,” the president replied, and those words and her whispered bargain with God were to echo in her mind throughout the following eighteen months.

The next Tahitian group was to leave for New Zealand in July 1965. With this goal in mind, Teriiotemana went back to the weaving and Puna returned to the hoeing. But the crops were meager that year, and Puna’s back was getting weaker. They sold their pigs and moved to Papeete, where Puna searched for work, any work that a man in his mid-seventies could do. He finally found a job at the wharf—a low-paying job, but one that he could do quietly with his hands.

Meanwhile, Teriiotemana’s hands continued to move, darting and twisting among the pandanus strands as she created hats, baskets, and mats. The time drew nearer; the second Tahitian group to attend the temple completed last-minute details. Still the hands worked; the pennies were not yet enough. Missionaries sent donations. Teriiotemana’s now gnarled hands worked with the pandanus in what seemed like an impossible attempt to pay them back. But when the plane left on schedule, Puna and Teriiotemana were on board.

“If God gives me strength and if he gives me breath.” The words must have caught repeatedly in Teriiotemana’s mind as the plane flew toward its destination. Though she was alive and heading for New Zealand, she had not wanted to tell anyone about the eye that no longer was of any use, the pains that were slowly shriveling her back, and most of all the trips to the doctor in Papeete and the X rays that only puzzled. Teriiotemana knew something was wrong.

The inside of the temple was like an old friend to Teriiotemana. Its halls and stairways echoed the pleasant times she had experienced before. But this time the hallways seemed dimmer to her; her legs were weaker. Teriiotemana was ill. A telegram was dispatched to Tahiti informing President Stone of her grave situation and asking for his approval for an operation. President Stone wired back, urging immediate operation, and Teriiotemana, having been administered to as the rest of the Tahitian group began a period of fasting and prayer, went under the anesthesia unafraid.

For Teriiotemana the next two days were a blur; the strange room, the bandages, the nurse in white who smoothed the sheets and smiled but spoke no Tahitian. Then Elder Marlowe K. Ashton, supervisor of the Tahitian group, sat by her bed and stroked her hand, telling her of the miraculous events of the past two days. The operation had been successful. The fasting, the faith, the prayers of her beloved group, and her own faith as well, had performed a miracle.

It was nineteen days before Teriiotemana was strong enough to return to her group. She joined them the last day of their New Zealand stay, and they returned to Tahiti on schedule.

Years have passed. Teriiotemana has faced another severe illness and has been strengthened by the power of the priesthood and faith. Although she has not yet been able to make another journey to the faraway island with the temple on the hill, she remembers gratefully the commitments she made and the promises she received, and she remembers the miracle she experienced there.

Meanwhile, as long as God gives her strength and breath, her fingers continue to flit busily among the fine strands of pandanus.

[illustration] Art by Richard Hull

Dr. Marshall filled a mission to Tahiti in 1955–58 and later returned there with his wife, Jean, to study and write. They now plan to settle in the western United States after completing a doctorate at the University of Connecticut. They have been members of the Manchester Ward, Hartford Stake.