Howell, Juanita Momi Wong
Lauren Howell Avery, edited by Leslie Howell de Silva
Name: Juanita Momi Wong Howell
Birth: November 6, 1918, Sprecklesville, Maui
Death: September 20, 2002, Provo, Utah
Parents: Ah Moon Wong
Alice ‘Alekūokamoana Asau
Siblings: Eddie, Henry, Hattie, Kau‘i, Charlotte, Alice, Esther, Sam, Harry, Margaret, Momi
Spouse: Bruce Howell
Married: January 16, 1943
Children: Meriellen Pualani (Graham), Lauren Althea ‘Alekūokamoana (Avery), Leslie Māpuana (de Silva), Bruce II
Our mother Juanita Momi Wong was born on November 6, 1918, at her family home in Camp One, Sprecklesville, Maui. Her father, Ah Moon Wong, had emigrated from China in the late 19th century as a sugar plantation worker – hence the family residence in the labor camp at Sprecklesville. Her mother Alice ‘Alekūokamoana Asau was Maui-born and raised, a native speaker of our ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i, and a highly skilled maker of lei hulu, pāpale lauhala, and kapa kuiki, some of which are still family heirlooms. Nita was the muli loa of the 12 Wong children; her two surviving sisters, “Marge” and Momi, are still proud residents of Maui o Kama. One of the few things we know about Ah Moon Wong is that he was in charge of the gates of his company’s irrigation system. This position, we are told, was one of considerable responsibility and was not often held, in those days, by ka po‘e Hailo. Although Mom’s older siblings have their own memories of Ah Moon Wong, he has always been, for her, a face in a photo: he died several months before she was born.
Under the watchful eyes of her mother and her disciplinarian brother Sam, Mom learned early and often the values of hard work and perseverance, of going without, and of sacrificing for the greater good of the family. As with all the women of her ‘ohana, she could cook, clean, sew, cut, build, repair, paint, plant, and gather. She excelled in everything, but her particular talent was that of transforming nothing into something, of taking the ordinary and making it special: she did this with fabric, with food, with plants, with homes, and even with people. He keu ‘o ia a ka wahine hana lima maiau; she excelled at work that required care and meticulous attention. Silk purses from sows’ ears: this was the legacy of her upbringing.
Nita was invited as a tenth grader to attend the Kamehameha School for Girls; she went eagerly, although it meant traveling alone, by steerage, on the inter-island steamships of the day. After graduating in 1937, she attended the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa for three years. It was at Kamehameha and Mānoa that she made so many of her lifelong friends, those who would become her golfing, card-playing, decorating, singing, dancing, lū‘au and party-making friends for all the years that followed. Among these hoapili were Cissy Blomfield, Billie Beamer, Momi Harris, Ha‘i Kamakau, and Becky McClellan; wonderful aunties all.
In January of 1943, Nita married Bruce Howell of Hāna, Maui, who had earlier moved to O‘ahu with his family to attend Punahou School. At the beginning of World War II, Bruce was declared unfit for military service (because of his flat feet), and he found employment at Red Hill working in a civil service position. He and Nita became the parents of Merriellen Pualani in 1943, Lauren Althea ‘Alekūokamoana in 1945, and Leslie Māpuana in 1949 (Bruce II, the “ratoon crop,” was to follow twelve years later). They subsequently lived for brief periods in Kaimukī, Kahala, and Mānoa before settling in Lanikai (‘o Kaʻōhao ka inoa pololei) in August of 1951. At this time the Pali Tunnels had yet to be constructed, and the journey from Kailua to town along the narrow, winding Pali Road was such a major undertaking that the family usually limited itself to a handful of trips a year: most notably for school and Christmas shopping. We were one of the first permanent families in what were then the Lanikai “boonies”; as charter members of the Lanikai Association, Mom and Dad helped field a baseball team, organize the annual lūʻau, and build a park and community center.
Always an entrepreneur and idea person, Mom converted a one-room Army shack in the back of her property into a pre-school. Working with a number of friends – including Maggi MacKenzie, one of her closest friends – Mom ran Lanikai Private School for 22 years. Perhaps their best-remembered innovation was a pre-school “bus service” that featured a mint green Chevy wagon with “woody” side panels (succeeded, some years later, by a snazzy red-and-black Chrysler station wagon otherwise known as “the boat”). We can still see Mom picking up and dropping off the neighborhood children in those wagons, the first two in a series of her trademark, oversized cars. Except for the Honda that she drove in her last years, she was an inveterate station-wagon owner: how else could she transport her kids, golf bags, red ginger cuttings, heliconia, bamboo poles, craft boxes, and plumeria baskets?
During this time, Mom began volunteering to head the decorating committees of a half-dozen annual events, including the Lanikai Association Lūʻau, the Kani Ka Pila Golf Club Scholarship Lūʻau, the Jennie K. Wilson Golf Tournament, and the Mid-Pacific Country Club’s Christmas celebration. These were to become decades-long commitments, and because Mom’s talents were in such great demand, we often found ourselves conscripted into her small, highly disciplined army of helpers. We remember sitting for hours stringing plumeria flowers on nīʻau midribs, so they could be poked into coconut boat center-pieces and foam-core hanging baskets. And we remember – all too well – having to un-skewer those same flowers, at night’s end, in order to save the nī'au for the next decorating sojourn. Mom was always the recycler of things large and small, and we still have today, in a steel cabinet in her garage, a twist-tied bundle of much-used nīʻau from long ago.
While we were growing up, it was quite evident to us that Mom and Dad not only loved life, home, and family; they also loved golf and the Mid-Pacific Country Club. On most Sunday afternoons we became “golf orphans” and were left to amuse ourselves at home or in the club pool while Bruce and Nita enjoyed 18 holes of golf and 19th hole celebrations with their friends. These friendships (and celebrations) often spilled over to our home, where we had parties that lasted for days and featured non-stop Hawaiian music and impromptu hula. As a result, we never had to consciously learn Hawaiian songs; we grew up with them constantly in our ears. Today, a chorus of “Kuʻu Hawaiʻi (Momi o ka Pākīpika)” still brings tears to our eyes; we can hear Mom and her friends singing in the highest of registers: powerful, beautiful, and oh so proud of their Hawaiʻi.
Mom’s contribution to Mid-Pacific Country Club is legendary. After 47 years of membership, she held every volunteer position available, and where there wasn’t a position, she created it – just to get the job done! She served many times over as both the Women’s Division and the Jennie K. Golf Tournament chair, and she led the volunteer decorating efforts at every Mid-Pac event, large and small, for most of the last four decades. This summer Mid-Pacific Country Club honored Mom at a surprise You Made a Difference Lunch. As much as Mom deserved every accolade for her leadership efforts, she was quick to acknowledge the contributions of a host of friends behind her, those who “listened to Mother Superior” and cheerfully obeyed her orders. As Aunty Helen Sing reminded everyone: “If you want to get the best results, you quickly learn that the best way – the only way – is Nita’s way.”
We gathered in Utah after Mom suffered her heart attack. As much as it was a week of apprehension and sorrow, it was also a week of great joy – joy that came from being with her and from being able to engage in the small conversations that will always be remembered. Mom never failed to find humor in difficult situations. Even in these waning days of her own life, she cast an all-too-familiar raised eyebrow on our behavior. After catching an all-night flight from Hawaiʻi, Lauren walked into Mom’s hospital room to greet her. Because Mom had respirator tubes in her mouth, she could only communicate by hand gestures and by writing on a tablet…and, as Lauren stood there, jet-lagged and worried about her, Mom wrote, “Have you been shopping, yet?”
When it was apparent that Mom’s time had arrived, we gathered at her bedside and heard her say, “You would be so kind to let me go.” And, recounting all of the many gifts she had given to us throughout all our years, we honored her request and said our goodbyes. As the sun set outside, Mom looked upward and asked, perhaps of the hovering angels, “Where did you come from?” A short time later, she spoke her last word, “Momi,” calling out to her youngest and most precious sister. We looked at the clock and it was 6:01 am, September 20th, 2002…forty-two years to the day that Tūtū, her mother, made the same transition.
As much as one could say that our Mom had a very long and full life and we are grateful for that, we also feel that there was so much more to do and say and enjoy. Eighty-three years, after all, is very short time.