I brew and drink the genmaicha I bought in Santa Cruz inside the rain in the tea and rug shop that made me think of Santa Fe, a low-roofed shop with wooden floors and rough woven kilims in earthen colors and the saturated reds of plant or mineral dyes. Green tea with roasted brown rice, a few of the grains popped like popcorn. A tea that offers great comfort, that holds sagacity and love in it.
The flavor takes me back to where we first drank it, the rustic old Manago Hotel on the road through the village of Captain Cook on the Big Island of Hawai'i. The one-room restaurant with its big screened windows open to the ocean breezes where we went often over twenty-some years, which my father knew first during the war. It was always a favorite spot for pork chops and for local fish, served family-style with bowls of sticky rice, potato or macaroni salad, tofu, marinated seaweed. And a sacramental pot of genmaicha.
The old family hotel would make me think in turn of pensioni on the shores of one of the Italian lakes I fell in love with in my late twenties after a failed marriage, maybe because it smelled of cooking meat and fish and had that dazzling view of sun-struck water, or because it was wound together all along with that nostalgic yearning memory of leisurely meals shared at a simple tables midday with a group of family and friends.
Between Keauhou Bay and Honaunau Bay, along the highway south through coffee country, past the coffee mills and sausage trees, between the place we stayed and the place where we left my father, in the end,
it was exactly the right place to find ourselves again after we'd scattered his ashes. Homey and comforting. All of us starved, feeling the call to life, we ate large helpings of pork chops and rice. Besides "Mama," "Daughter," and "Auntie," Mom's Hawaiian singer friend who painted houses when his music didn't pay enough, and told me about swimming with an 80-pound pet eel; the English gardener whose father was a seacaptain and who brought little pecan tarts and bags of papayas to my mother; and the wise and funny Honolulu-born elder, kupuna, who made jewelry from coral, seed pearls, seed pods, and sharks' teeth.
Honaunau Bay is just outside the City of Refuge, sacred ground to the ancient Hawaiians, and an important place to us—closed just then, ironically, because of a political standoff in Washington (something my father would have had some pithy words to cover). So near to sacred ground (appropriate for a much vaunted agnostic) we gathered between the historical site and a tiny native fishing village with tin roofs at the boat harbor, where locals park in big old beat-up vans to talk-story and drink beer.
The captain of the outrigger canoe which took out the ashes was a fisherwoman too and a breeder of terriers, and had a house on the mountain besides one on the bay there in that fishing village, with five lava steps leading right down into the water. Water the color of sapphires, my father's September birthstone. She'd made an altar, with a square of bright cloth, a pareo, laid out over a stone wall at the boat harbor, and flowers in a ceremonial pattern on it—leis, white and butter yellow plumeria, dusty lavender crown flowers. She had us put the container of ashes ("Temporary Container") in the center, within the circle of the middlemost lei, and any snapshots we had of "Papa." The picture by the cottonwood in Santa Fe, when I was in eighth grade; and one up to his shins, pantlegs tidily rolled, in the river in Yellowstone, where my parents had met. Circled around it, we listened to "Amazing Grace" in Hawaiian, and "Aloha Oe"; to a passage from Colette my mother had found; to a tribute I'd written.
And later we would eat pork chops and rice with chopsticks at a big square table in an airy room with wooden walls and floors and big screened windows and the sea below. We would drink genmaicha, spilling a spontaneous offering from the lip of the ceramic teapot to the local gods, who'd come and joined us as we sat and talked.
Reading the tea leaves tells of the long skein of life past as well as the future. Fortune goes both ways. Backwards and on, ahead, glimpsed only in a cup or glass, darkly. The earthy fragrance and flavor of toasted rice, cupped in both hands, coaxes the necessary stories out.
image: Japanese Tea Sommelier