I’m not even sure how to begin describing today. It is appropriate in this culture to commemorate the one-year anniversary after a death. But this day was bigger and better and longer than any we've seen before. It began with the expected early bells clamoring repeatedly at 5:00 a.m. and proceeded to the communion service around 6:30 a.m. But one of the things I didn’t expect was the number of Mother’s Union members who came to pay tribute to the woman who brought that organization to the Russell Islands in the early 1960s. Today’s service marked the one year anniversary of Mary Nose’s death (actually, next week marks a year, but it falls inside Advent, so the celebrations were held today). The church overflowed with family, friends, and members of Mother’s Union. After the service was complete, we walked down to the cemetery where the priest blessed the newly cemented grave and the headstone.
Marulaon offered the traditional “light breakfast” of tea and cakes (including our banana muffins) to the honored guests. Quickly, the feasting followed for the whole community. Aaron and I were slow because we snuck back to the house to try and quickly finish some laundry and hang it out to dry before the festivities began. Thankfully, one of Olivia’s friends snagged some parcels of fish, pig, rice, and root crops and stuck them in the box that had once held banana cake. When we got done and to the shore, the girls were already gnawing their way through the goodies. We sat in a corner and unobtrusively ate, and it was really nice not to have to sit in a place of honor, but to just be part of the community.
Then the haircutting began. Four family members had been chosen by extended family to grow their hair out for a full year in sign of mourning: Nose’s sister, daughter, niece, and grandson. My anthropology-loving husband really enjoys days like today that are so full of symbolism and meaning. Family and friends brought small gifts to fill a huge plastic bin with goodies to present to the four. We contributed some laundry detergent, tea, and noodles. Around noon, family brought the bins to the four who were waiting under the shade of a tarp. Family members with meaningful ties to each of the four then cut hair with scissors, dressed the participant in new white clothes and jewelry, and painted traditional white decorations on their faces and arms.
This all took a long time, and I moved around on the fringes of the crowd taking pictures of the ceremony and holding babies. Olivia and Katherine stayed with their friends, and Aaron stayed near the shore. Near the end of the haircutting, I whispered to him that I really liked just being part of the community and not being singled out. I know it’s my American egalitarian culture shining through. Not thirty seconds after the words left my mouth, one of the family members, who was giving a speech, mentioned his thanks to our family. And when one of the priests gave his speech, he effusively thanked us for always participating in community events and supporting the Lavukal.
After the last round of speeches, it was time for the “party favors”. The family had compiled huge amounts of uncooked food to give back to the people who had helped with the special day. It was more than just “you brought food or a present, so you get to take something home.” This was also recognizing the support of family and friends during the last year. First heaps and heaps of root crops and cooking bananas were spread out, then vast amounts of uncooked pig were wrapped in a leaf and placed on top of each heap. Hundreds of heaps. We were all called into action waving the flies away while the piles were assembled. For at least two hours, we waved leaves over the piles and visited with our neighbors.
Finally, Leonard began to read the names on the list. They were in order of importance, beginning with the closest family members. One by one, people began to retrieve their pile of food. By this point, I was cooking in the sun and needed to rest, so when the pile I was protecting was gone, I went up to the house to drink water and lay down. Aaron and Olivia stayed to the bitter end. They finally got home just before six, carrying two big baskets of potatoes, a massive stalk of cooking bananas, and a leaf full of pork. We opted out of the dancing and partying all night long. Instead, we grabbed a bite to eat, drank copious amounts of water, and washed the dishes that had been accumulating all day. I happened to glance at the thermometer at 7:00 as we were putting the finishing touches on the kitchen, it read 102 degrees.