Songs From Far Away

"I would play and sing, and it was like my father was there."

When my father deployed, the music went with him. The ukulele that I had watched him play as I grew up was abandoned. It played no lullabies, Christmas songs, or Happy Birthdays. No silly songs to cheer us up or perky tunes to make us dance. It sat there lifeless, just wood and strings.

"Time will fly by; you'll see," our mother soothed. We were used to Father being gone, after all, but never for so long or so suddenly. It had come as a surprise because we had just moved into a new duty station a few weeks before.

This had been our fourth Permanent Change of Station (PCS) in only two years, but we didn't mind so much. New people, places, and experiences were the privileges of military life. It was easy to make new friends, but it was harder to keep them. Military life taught us how to appreciate the people we had with us, for however long that might be. And the one consistency was us: Dad, Mom, my brother and sister, and me. Us versus the world. We rarely saw our actual relatives, but that was okay because the Army was our family.

Still, music was the thing that tethered my father to Hawaii, a reminder of his home and heritage. We learned about our ancestors and culture mostly through his music and songs. Music was how he shared our family traditions and expressed his love.

But with this PCS, everything was different. We were finally "home" in Hawaii and expected to fit into a place that we had only heard about in my parents' stories. Father had spent more than twenty years of service trying to get stationed back to his place of birth and the extended family he left behind. We were just arriving, awkward and clumsy in a half-civilian existence, and he was already making preparations to leave again, this time without us.

Suddenly, we were surrounded by cousins and aunties who grew up knowing each other and participating in a cultural heritage of which we only had a surface knowledge. They wove lauhala and dug for crabs. We didn't. They had learned recipes and customs from our Tutu (grandmother). But we hadn't. We were foreigners in our own family.

We didn't fit in, and the one person who made us fit—our father—was gone. Not just for a week of field training, or a month of Temporary Duty (TDY) somewhere in the United States, but indefinitely—thousands of miles away on foreign soil.

Without the structure that living on base provided, or the surety of my father's steady guidance, we were a ship without captain or compass. And that was when my father's ukulele called out to me. As I plucked the strings in a tuneless, random tempo, I felt closer to him and our Hawaiian roots. So I picked up an old song book and a chord chart, and I taught myself to play.

I would play and sing, and it was like my father was there. After my father eventually returned, he bought another ukulele, and we had a mini concert. He was shocked and proud that I had learned so much, so quickly. But what I really learned was that music has the power to do extraordinary things—tying us to our culture and each other, our past and our present.

When I went off to college, his ukulele went with me. When I missed home or felt like things just didn't fit, I would play and sing. And my songs would fill up all those empty spaces inside, tucked tightly like the corners of my dorm bed sheets… and everything would be OK.

Cover image ImYanis I Shutterstock

This story is from Chicken Soup for the Soul: Military Families: 101 Stories about the Force Behind the Forces © 2017 Chicken Soup for the Soul, LLC. All rights reserved.

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