Article — From the December 1954 issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
Article — From the December 1954 issue
Kirk was born in 1918, and immediately after his birth the family went to Paris, where his father was assigned for duty at the peace negotiations. After about a year, he was re-assigned to Hawaii, and shortly after appointed Commissioner over a mandated island. There was, Kirk later heard, some question about accepting this assignment. His parents were reluctant to exchange the comfortable life of Honolulu for the rigors of existence on a remote outpost. They agreed, however, to accept the appointment for one year in order not to prejudice a long record of excellent government service.
The first year of their stay on the island both the Commodore and his wife were busy, he with administrative duties and she with welfare projects for the natives. When the year ended the Commodore put in for a replacement. His still very young wife joyously anticipated the return to more civilized society. But the days of anxious expectation stretched into weeks before, finally, the Commodore was informed that his application for replacement had been denied.
At this collapse of her hopes, Kirk’s mother reverted to her premarital apathy and went into a decline of spirits from which she did not recover for more than ten years. For a time she spent her energies in quarreling with her husband, vainly urging him to resign, and refusing to consider his suggestion that she and her child return to Hawaii. Obviously needful of his paternal protection, she chose instead to accept the situation resentfully. She abandoned the projects she had begun and withdrew from all social intercourse. Whereas she had formerly taken at least a supervisory interest in Kirk, she now left him completely in the charge of servants. Her relations with the Commodore became merely formal: she would emerge from her room only at dinner time and retire as soon as the meal ended. She became a shadowy, mysterious figure in Kirk’s life–someone unknown and apart.
The only other significant human rela- tionships Kirk had during childhood and early adolescence were with his Hawaiian nurse, the native women who took charge of him after her death, and the few white women whom his father employed from the United States.
Myna, the Hawaiian nurse, was the first and most important influence on Kirk’s development. She had come to the family as a wet nurse for the infant and remained to mother him until the end of his sixth year. Kirk’s recollection of her as a person is unclear, but the feelings evoked by her memory are sweet and strong.
She was a dark-skinned, buxom young Polynesian matron who had come down from the hill country to seek employment in Honolulu just at the time Kirk was born. She could speak only a few words of English but was bright and intelligent and took over the mothering of the infant the moment she saw him. Not only was he nourished from her huge bosom, but from her vast placidity and comforting presence he obtained everything his real mother denied. During the day she was hardly separated from him for a moment, and at night her warm nakedness engulfed him. In every way Myna treated Kirk as her child, rearing him in her own tradition.
One day a visitor expressed surprise that Kirk prattled only in the dialect of his nurse. That brought the situation to the attention of Kirk’s mother, and for a few months Myna was given other duties. As a result, Kirk learned the rudiments of English and was slowly–but only slightly–transformed into a passable facsimile of a “civilized” child. When Kirk recalled this period of re-education, he remembered it as a painful experience in which the world seemed to close in on him, and his freedom was constrained by clothes and shoes and the worry of keeping clean.
But his mother could not maintain her enthusiasm for the new regime. Gradually, Myna recovered her place. After that, however, the nurse kept a weather eye on the amenities of the speech, clothing, manners, and habits of her charge; and was careful to insure that Kirk–when his parents were about, at least–appeared to be a child of their culture rather than hers.
Participation in this conspiracy only deepened the love between Kirk and his nurse. Except for a few hours each day when the boy attended a school organized by his mother for the native children and taught by the wife of an Army officer, he never left Myna’s side. She died suddenly when he was six years old, and the space in his life left by her death was never filled.
More from Robert Mitchell Lindner: