My grandmother, Abigail McMillen, “Auntie Abbie” to almost everyone who knew her, was a big woman. Big heart. Big soul. Big body. She came to me from Hawaii the year of Statehood and became a fixture at every gathering of local Hawaiians in the Washington, D.C. area. If there was a meal, she would pray the Benediction. If there was hula, she would strum her guitar or tenor ukulele. If there was a luau – that meant one thing – get out the Black Holoku.
Now my mother Lani had a closet full of aloha wear. She loved the colorful patterns of designer Tory Richard. But Nana had the Black Holoku. It was a lace confection worn over a gold slip dress. It took all the women in the family to squeeze her into this most regal gown. Once we got the girdle laced up and the stockings fastened to the garters, the rest was easy. But don’t think there weren’t a few exclamations of Auwe during the process. The final touch was securing the boar’s tusk pendant or a flower corsage to the bodice. The result of these ministrations was the transformation of Auntie Abbie into her role as Queen Liliuokalani in the pageant which proceeded the uncovering of the imu at the annual King Kamehameha Day Luau of the Hawaii State Society.
I spent my whole childhood and youth watching my grandmother “put on” the last monarch of Hawaii whenever that black lace floated over her head and slid down the gold satin slip to brush the top of her stocking’d feet. The woman who washed our clothes, made our dinners, consoled our parents after their rough day at work, and placed cool cloths over our feverish foreheads in illness became an icon of dignity, nobility and wisdom when she stepped out in her Black Holoku.
When the dress came off to be carefully put away and the girdle unstrung and stockings placed in the wash, the last monarch was put to bed only to awaken the next morning as “Nana”, the grandmother who was the heart of our family, always our queen. Every task performed, word spoken, or joy or sorrow shared was done so with aloha.
Whenever I read about our last monarch Queen Liliuokalani or sing her songs, I always see my grandmother in her Black Holoku standing tall, proud, Hawaiian.