Leaving Paradise


We’d be spending a whole year in a marvelous place called Michigan. It even had snow.

When my father announced that he was taking sabbatical leave and our family would be moving from Hawaii to Michigan for a year, I shouted for joy. What were sandy beaches and swaying palms compared to ice and snow?

We had lived in the sleepy town of Laie, Hawaii, since I was five years old. Now, at age 12, I’d had six full years of rollicking in frothy surf, of jumping waves, and of eating wild mountain fruit. The soles of my feet were the toughest footgear I owned.

But as an avid reader, I had run through the snowy Alps with Heidi, skated with Hans Brinker, and sledded with the Bobbsey twins, although in reality the only snow I’d seen was the stuff we scraped from inside the freezer. Michigan! What an adventure for a 12-year-old who’d spent most of her life in a provincial tropical village. I didn’t stop to think about how we’d fit in in our new community, whether we’d be accepted or have friends. I just knew that everything would be wonderful.

Our new home on Plymouth Road in Ann Arbor had everything a mainland home should have—a basement, two sets of stairs, a fireplace, and stately trees that promised to shower us with autumn leaves. I’d soon be raking them, just like the children in my books. The early chill of fall was invigorating but also a reminder that we had no warm clothing. I had never owned a coat or a pair of boots in my life!

Because my father was on a sabbatical leave, his salary was cut in half that year. Mom proclaimed that her budget would burst if she tried to buy new winter wear for seven children and two adults. A helpful ward member steered us to “The Tree,” a second-hand clothing shop.

Mom, a native of Los Angeles, California, was as ignorant of winter fashions as we were. Naive as Eskimos buying swimsuits, we shuffled through the racks of slightly faded clothing.

I spotted a rather large, knee-length plaid coat with shoulders twice the size of mine. Slipping it on over my tall, skinny frame, I looked hesitantly in the mirror.

“It’s lovely, darling,” the elderly saleslady said. “It will be very warm.”

Polly, one year my elder, was told she looked stunning in a red wool coat, which also was large and very fuzzy. We left feeling pleased with our purchases and stopped at J. C. Penney’s on the way home for knee socks and transparent rubber galoshes. We could hardly wait to wear our new clothing to school at the junior high across town.

Then, shortly before school was to begin, I was playing “see-who-can-leap-over-the-most-stairs” on the front porch with Polly and Philip, my ten-year-old brother. I took a wild jump and landed in a heap at the bottom of the stairs, my sparkly pink glasses shattered at my side.

But the real tragedy occurred when I went shopping for replacement glasses with my father and Philip. They had about as much fashion savvy as my mother in the second-hand store. And even if I’d had a little savvy of my own, it wouldn’t have made much difference because I couldn’t see without my glasses.

I only knew I was tired of sparkly pink frames. This year I would wear sophisticated black. The frames I selected had wings curving elegantly upward on both sides. Cocking my head to achieve an air of mystery, I glanced at my fuzzy reflection in the mirror.

“How do you like them, Daddy?”

“How much do they cost?”

“On sale this week,” the saleslady said.

“In that case, they look terrific.”

Two weeks later we returned to pick up my cosmopolitan frames. I was trembling with anticipation. But as my face appeared in sharp focus in the optician’s mirror, I stared in horror. The longer I stared, the sicker I felt. The curving black wings that had seemed so sophisticated in my hands looked garish on my thin face. They threatened to leave me and fly around the room. I wished they would.

Mom gave Dad a hard look when we got home but told me I looked nice. Nobody else said anything until Polly came flying down the stairs.

She stopped abruptly and gaped.

“You look like Catwoman on the Batman show!” (For the next two years, I was Catwoman.)

Finally, school started. I had dreamed about the new friends I would meet. But I spent the first few weeks of junior high curiously surveying the school and waiting for classmates to befriend me. The other seventh-grade girls seemed so much older and superior. They wore nylons, earrings, makeup. Some of the rowdy ones smoked and had boyfriends.

Weeks went by, then months. A few kids said hi and asked what it was like to live in Hawaii, but no one seemed interested in being my friend. I was puzzled. Was it my clothing or my personality? In Hawaii we had always been friendly to the new kids.

Still, life was such an adventure that I didn’t have time to feel sad. Each day after school I’d explore the house and the yard. On weekends, my parents packed all of us into our cream-colored station wagon and took us on journeys of discovery.

One weekend we visited the Ford plant and watched cars being assembled. Another weekend we discovered the Kellogg’s cereal factory in Battle Creek and saw them make Fruit Loops and Corn Flakes. Another time we had a picnic in Kalamazoo.

On Saturdays when we had to stay home, we thought up excuses to walk to Bolgos Drugstore a mile down the road, where we would squander our allowance on candy.

And of course there were other adventures all week long. With the heavier chills, our stately trees turned breathtaking crimson, yellow, and orange, just like they did in the books. It was a fascinating contrast to the perpetual green of the islands. No other home possessed such enthusiastic rakers. Naturally I tried jumping into the fresh piles, but all I did was hurt myself and get dead leaves stuck inside my clothes. The books had glamorized the experience.

And I woke up early to wander the brightly colored farmers’ market. Father could never get enough fresh produce. Bushels of Golden Delicious apples, orange pumpkins, and shiny gourds spilled from the booths. Bananas, coconuts, and guavas paled in the face of this display.

It was in the farmers’ market that I tasted my first pat of maple sugar. Wrapped in cellophane, the sugar was molded into fancy leaf and star shapes. I nibbled it slowly, reveling in its smooth texture and the way it melted in my mouth.

On some afternoons, we’d help my mother put up pears. The shimmering jars, pink from the tiny red cinnamon candies Mom dropped into each bottle, were beautiful.

Then one day it was cold enough to show off our winter clothing at school. The thrill was short-lived when I saw the other girls in their snappy, thigh-length coats and knee boots. Skinny, with the weirdest eyeglasses east of the Mississippi, I looked like somebody’s eccentric grandmother. Transparent galoshes and a bag lady coat didn’t enhance the image. Polly in her fuzzy red and I in my plaid were undoubtedly the misfits of Forsythe Junior High. We stared at each other in disgust, yet clung to each other for support.

Lunch period was the worst. Polly and I ate at different times, so we had to eat alone. It was also embarrassing to have to bring a sack lunch. Every day I sat by myself, reading a book so I didn’t have to look up.

One day a girl from one of the tough groups sauntered over on a dare from her friends. Her heavily made-up eyes jeered at me.

“Whatcha readin’?” she said.

I could hear the laughter of her friends. My heart pounded. Maybe if I kept reading she would just leave.

“Is it good?” she tried again, turning to look at her friends. Loud laughter. I kept reading.

“Man, are you dumb,” she said as she walked away.

I was too embarrassed to mention the incident to my parents. I don’t think they ever realized I had no friends at school. I don’t know if it was just the clothes we wore or that we didn’t know exactly what to say or do to be like everyone else, but we never did feel like we fit in.

I wrote in my journal, “I don’t know what to wear. White socks and shoes are out in the winter, and I have the wrong kind of coat and boots. Styles are so different here!”

Church and home were the only two places where I felt accepted. The kids at church didn’t seem to care about my eerie eyewear or my outdated clothing. I loved activity nights. An industrious seamstress, I modeled several of my creations in an MIA fashion show. Another time I participated in an impromptu speech contest and did terribly, but no one seemed to mind. Virginia Webb became a good friend, but she attended a different junior high.

I began to live for weekends and the hours after school spent playing with my brothers and sisters. In Hawaii we had had scores of friends and rarely played together. But here my brothers and sisters became my closest friends. They were there when that long-awaited snow finally fell. We frolicked in it like kittens in catnip. We held our mouths open as it fell. Each flake was a miracle, every snowball another excuse to giggle.

Eventually it dawned on us that we were the biggest kids on the sledding hill across from our home. In Michigan sledding was only for kids. But Alan didn’t care. At age 16, he was six feet, five inches tall, and he loved sledding. Every day after school, he went sledding alongside the grade schoolers. They gawked at him, but since he was so much bigger, no one ever said a word.

The rest of us, still trying to fit in, bought used ice skates. I’d been a good roller skater in Hawaii and ice skating came easy. With all the ponds and lakes in Michigan, we never had to settle for endless circling in a stale old rink. I loved the exhilaration of skating hard and fast across a frozen lake.

In the middle of the winter, a package arrived from my Grandmother Marsh in Los Angeles. I caught my breath when Polly and I tore off the brown wrapping. Inside were two outfits, breathtakingly in style. Mine had a pink flowered top with knee socks to match. Polly’s was identical, except that it was blue. This was our big chance to show the kids at Forsythe Junior High that we weren’t such misfits after all. Boy, would they be surprised!

I was a little nervous about the color because this was no ordinary pink. It was a sizzling, shocking pink. But the outfit was so definitely “in” that I squelched my fear. I slowly hung my oversized plaid coat in my locker and wondered what the kids would think of me appearing in such style.

A sea of eyes followed my dazzling pink presence from my locker to my homeroom. Then the whispering began—but not whispers of envy or admiration, as I had secretly hoped.

“Look what she’s wearing.”

“Didn’t we already have Halloween?”

All day the laughter continued. Resentment and frustration built within me. If only I had a friend to walk with, it would be so much easier. If only somebody who knew what was acceptable would give me some hints. Repeatedly I had tried to fit in and failed. And now even Grandma’s outfit had betrayed me. After that I stopped trying to live by other people’s standards. I warned Polly, and she never even wore her new clothes.

I wish I could say that there was some magic turning point, that we discovered a key that made us popular, that we found friends at our school, and that we became leaders and trendsetters ourselves. Of course we didn’t. In a year the sabbatical was over, and we returned to Hawaii, our scores of friends, our waves and mountain fruit, our mild weather and perpetually green foliage. Never was I happier than when we returned to our beloved island.

And yet now, 20 years later, when I think of Michigan, I smile. With fondness I recall Alan running barefoot in the snow. I grin at the memory of Philip and me raking autumn leaves. My heart soars when I remember skimming across a frozen lake with Polly or strolling through the farmer’s market with my father. Tears come to my eyes when I think about the whole family piling into our cream-colored station wagon, off for a picnic in Kalamazoo.

It isn’t easy to move when you’re in junior high school. It’s even tougher when you’re poor and you’re exchanging a provincial paradise for a bustling college town. There were times when I was sure I would never make it.

But now, given some time and distance, I know what the secret was. I leaned on my family. And because of them I survived.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Richard Brown