When I look back and try to recall my first few days on Luaniua Island, my mind fills with a whirl of shapes and colors, like a glass of water you use to clean your painter's brush in. My brain during that period was constantly whirring on all cylinders, organizing and synthesizing the rush of sensory input that bombarded it. From the moment I opened my eyes in the morning (pinpoint lights dancing through the thatched ceiling as the tropical rays found their way past the leaves), to when I lay back down on my coconut mat for 'bed' (the wind blinked past, making my mosquito net breathe a giant breath), my new world was slowly becoming part of me.
As the first and second days off the ship rolled past, Islanders would periodically appear at our door, with steaming plates of unknown substances in their proffered hands. We dined on smoked fish, fish soup, fish on rice, fish on taro, with sometimes a side of disgustingly grey, sticky, gelatinous taro pudding on the side. We would sneak out at night to feed that to the fishes, subversive and sinister as the New York mob.
The third day on Luaniua was my birthday. I woke to my mother prying open the plywood crates that had come on the ship with us.
"I am making donuts for your birthday breakfast!" she announced bravely. We all clamored round her; already the island diet had grown old, and we were starving for some comfort food, something to remind us of home. She continued to dig in the crates. A wok appeared. After that, a single Bunsen burner. Thirty minutes later, Mom had unpacked half the crates we owned, and a pile of necessities was slowly growing beside her. Us kids were starting to protest in hunger, ("Hurry, Moooom!"), while Dad had long since given up and made off into the village to start his day of language learning and relationship building. I could see the sweat droplets start to gather on my mother's face, as the stress rose within her.
You can tell that my mom is getting stressed out because it builds up from her feet. Like the old-timey Donald Duck cartoons, when he starts getting mad and the red rises from his toes, until it finally bursts his head and steam pours from his ears. My mom does this, only it's when she's stressed out.
So the stress was building, and us kids were whining and complaining. She staved us off with a plate of leftover rice and fish broth as she finally located her mixing bowl and spoons. No cookbook had surfaced yet, but the intrepid heroine of this little story quickly went to plan 'f', and started throwing ingredients that might make up donuts into her bowl. The stress was now showing in her arms, as they stiffly beat the flour and leavening just a little harder than was necessary.
Matthew and Nathan were the next to give up the wait, wandering outside to meet the ever-present spectators of 'The White Man Show'. They had commenced a game of shoot-the-rubber-band with the village kids when Mom finally got the burner started. However, a wok, as it turned out, is not designed well for deep frying. The oil never got hot enough to really cook a doughnut the way it's supposed to be cooked, and after several tries, my mother finally managed to produce one sad little circle, lopsided and still a bit chewy in the very middle. This she handed to me, with the red simmering just a little below her ears. "Happy Birthday, sweetheart."
I took the doughnut, holding it in my hand for a few beats. I could see that the only thing keeping the lid on the pot that was now boiling inside my mother was her love for me. It looked out of her eyes at me, saying, "Please be happy with this. I want you to have a happy birthday. I tried to make it special. Please don't be disappointed." And I realized, looking into my mother's eyes, that I wasn't.
I took a bite of the sweet, chewy goodness and let it sit on my tongue. I rolled it around my mouth, feeling the satisfying way it chomped between my teeth. I swallowed it slowly, and my stomach jumped as it hit, clamoring for more. I ate that doughnut probably the slowest that I've ever eaten anything in my life. I savored every bite, except the last three, which went to my siblings, whose puppy-dog looks told me that I really couldn't eat it all by myself. But I ate most of it. Because, after all, it was my birthday.