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The Shipwreck Rose: A Parrot, a Plumeria

Thu, 08/24/2023 - 11:00
A cross-stitch sampler worked by the daughter of an American missionary in Hawaii and given to an Amagansett whaling man in 1855.
Bess Rattray

When I was a young copy editor at Mirabella magazine in Manhattan I went on a press trip to Oahu, Hawaii, to be minivanned around the island with a jaded cadre of veteran travel writers who were regular riders on the tourist-bureau gravy train, sipping heartily of the frozen-coconut beverages and inspecting a series of palmy, balmy resorts and pineapple plantations. That was my only trip to Hawaii, but I loved Hawaii so much I wanted to marry it. The “plate lunch” cuisine, with poi and pork, was heaven to me. The Kona coffee, the plumeria, and birds of paradise. I had had no idea, before that trip, how persistent the Polynesian culture of Hawaii was, how distinctive it remained despite statehood and the creep and crawl of mini-malls near Honolulu.

I even loved touristy Waikiki Beach, with Diamond Head looming large, and the big, pink, splendid old Royal Hawaiian hotel. We didn’t get to stay in a historic palace like the Royal Hawaiian — to which I have been meaning to return since this press trip, which was in 1997 or so — but returned each night sunburnt and sated with Mai Tais to a more-generic tourist resort called Hilton Hawaiian Village. Even the Hilton couldn’t crush my pineapple dreams. The vanload of travel writers in vacation shorts and Tevas was squired to luaus and lavish poolside luncheon buffets. We visited the Halekulani hotel, the name of which, the guide said, meant “house befitting heaven” and the Kahala, a luxe tower with resident dolphins cavorting in a series of pools.

Invitations to press trips came to me at my desk fairly regularly but had to be turned down on the women’s-magazine principle that you don’t accept gifts in exchange for coverage and you don’t go on free trips unless you were planning to write about the destination anyway. I wasn’t supposed to accept this invitation from the Oahu Tourist Board, and was scolded about going by the editor in chief when I got back to Manhattan. I never managed to get a story about Oahu into Mirabella or Elle, if memory serves. . . . (But: There! I’ve just done it. I finally got something in print about my 1997 press trip to Hawaii. Conscience salved.)

It’s cringey — naff, ick, blerg — to swoon over someone else’s home island and say you heard its siren song and “fell in love.” I don’t like it when people rhapsodize about how they came to East Hampton in 1994, or whatever, and fell in love with the wide beaches and the light. I mean, of course you did. Ick. But here I’m a hypocrite. Some islands vibrate with something. I hate to admit it. Jamaica reverberates with a powerful magnetic something; it’s not just the density of the foliage and the sunshine, the natural beauty, but the deep past. Oahu did that to me, too. I’ve been waiting to return to Hawaii for 27 years.

I’ve got no right to throw around opinions on Lahaina, having zero claim to any relation with Maui, but I felt like someone had stabbed me with a knitting needle when I first heard the news of its destruction by wildfire there two weeks ago. Oh, the humanity. Oh, the history.

On the wall in my living room is an unusual souvenir from Hawaii, a precious family possession that has been carefully handed down for five generations, following the Edwards line. It is a colorful but fading cross-stitch sampler worked by an American girl in the Sandwich Islands — Hawaii, that is — in 1855, and given by her as a love token to my great-great-grandfather, Joshua Bennett Edwards, who had come to port aboard a deep-sea whaleship.

I cannot remember who told me it was given to my Amagansett ancestor by the daughter of a missionary, but the story I got — from my dad, probably? — was that the girl’s father wouldn’t let her marry an oily-jacketed whaling man from Long Island. The Edwardses were extremely morally upright, even rigid, almost Puritanical, in their religion — refusing to toil on the Sabbath, for instance — and, judging by a surviving daguerreotype of him in his youth, Joshua was a brawny, handsome man. But, I think, he was not of the correct class to be a suitable suitor.

Let me describe it to you. The sampler is in a painted black-and-gold frame, about 11 inches wide by 9 inches high. The frame is somewhat dinged and chipped, and the needlework and glass are held in place, at the reverse, by a piece of wood that looks suspiciously like a shingle. At the left side, most prominently, there is a parrot — yellow, blue, green, and red. Above the parrot, an angel flying upside-down, with gold wings and bare limbs, clothed only in a loose red garment thrown toga-like over one shoulder, leaving the left side of the chest uncovered. The angel is holding things in his hands; either a rose or an arrow (is this Cupid?) in the left and something (what?) pronged and forklike in the right. Below the parrot is a figure on horseback. You can make out the reins, saddle, and cap on the rider’s head. It’s beautifully, meticulously done, much more skillful than the plain alphabetical needlework you visualize when you hear the word “sampler.” The right side is mostly floral motifs — a wreath of flowers, a vase of flowers, twisted vines of flowers — and a little yellow bird with a red band around its neck.

It would be good to figure out who this missionary girl was, forbidden to marry the sailor she loved. Maybe I can figure it out. In the 1850s, Lahaina and Oahu were the two main whaling ports of the Pacific, and only a handful of missionary families from New England lived in those two towns. Josh would have met her in Lahaina or Oahu.

He spent 18 years traveling the world on whale ships. When he was 20, he went out as boatsteerer with Captain Brown of Sag Harbor aboard the Ontario; that trip lasted four years. He was in the Bering Sea in 1865 when the Confederate warship Shenandoah fired the last shots of the Civil War in the cold Arctic air. In 1854, he left Greenport aboard the bark Oregon with Captain Baldwin; he was still only 25 years old when the Oregon reached the Sandwich Islands and he had a romance with a girl who gave him a sampler with an angel, a parrot, a knight, and a lavish of flowers. He didn’t marry until he was 38. Quite old. You do wonder why.

Family lore did not record what Josh’s eventual bride, Adelia Conklin of Amagansett, thought of his adventures in the Pacific or why she allowed another girl’s sampler to be kept, framed, on the wall in their house on Atlantic Avenue, but Adelia and Joshua’s son — my great-grandfather, E.J. — did say that only she, Adelia, knew the true story of her husband’s Hawaiian romance, and she wasn’t talking.


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