The Wisdom of Liliuokalani

Updated: May 6

Written by Luisa Kay Reyes for the collection: 'Life in the time of #COVID'


Photo by Peter Vanosdall

When we moved to the small village of Hartville, in Northeast Ohio to live with my grandfather, we were presented with a dilemma. My grandfather had a baby grand piano in his house, so I had access to a piano to practice on. But all of the piano teachers in the area were so filled up with students, that they didn’t have room for a single one more. Thankfully, after a while, my grandfather came to the rescue. He was a retired mathematics professor from the University of Akron, but in his retirement years had returned to one of his original life interests and was working as the devoted organist at one of the local Methodist Churches. Consequently, when he asked the elderly Mrs. Schaeffer to take me on as a piano student, she readily agreed. She was a wonderful teacher and the two of us clicked immediately as piano teacher and piano student. With Mrs. Schaeffer expressing her desire, after my first lesson, to send me to her alma mater - Oberlin. Being young and impressionable, I had no idea that Oberlin was none other than one of the top music conservatories in the world. And when we moved back to Alabama, I continued studying the piano, but the closest I would ever come to studying at Oberlin was taking some private lessons through their community music school. Nonetheless, as a young girl I found myself enchanted by the stories Mrs. Schaeffer would tell me about how the adopted daughter of the Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani went to Oberlin. Notably proud of that fact, Mrs. Shaeffer mentioned it frequently as I learned how to play “Aloha Oe” out of the “Let Us Have Music for Piano” book that complemented the Presser book we used during my lessons. Leaving me entranced as a young girl by the notion of such an accomplished composer Queen. Later, as my curiosity about this tropical musical regent led me to learn more about her life, I found to my horror that the descendants of some New England missionaries became prominent businessmen on the Hawaiian Islands. And when smallpox that was brought over by Chinese laborers struck the islands affected the native Hawaiian population, Queen Liliuokalani naturally demanded that the ports be closed and those affected be quarantined. Being the dutiful and conscientious queen that she was, she was appropriately looking out for her people. But the businessmen felt affronted. After all, with the ports closed, their businesses were suffering. And their resentments helped fuel the movement to force her later abdication. “How could anyone possibly be so cruel?” was my first thought when I learned the story. Surely those businessmen were unnaturally greedy and such disregard for the lives of others was an isolated event in world history.

Today’s quarantine due to the COVID-19 virus has taught me otherwise. As my mother and I learn to live comfortably while staying at home and remain socially distant via reading books, practicing the piano, taking spoken Latin lessons through video conferencing, and watching movies in the evening; we remain astonished at the number of people who express more concern for the economy’s future anticipated suffering rather than for the present actual suffering of those who come down with a frighteningly lethal airborne virus. Oftentimes, through no fault of their own. “The old should be willing to die, so their grandchildren can have a better life”, they state nonchalantly with a willingness to maintain businesses open and the wheels of commerce running as if nothing were awry. Thereby revealing to me how little times have changed since the days of those greedy businessmen on the Hawaiian Islands. For those same people who prize the economy above all else, seem to blissfully ignore the fact that those very same grandparents are often responsible for the upbringing and well being of their grandchildren. With meth and other illicit drugs have wreaked havoc upon the parents of the young so often nowadays. And to toss those said grandparents to the curb is to create a generation of orphans which will result in a drain on both society and their precious economy. Yet, as the governor and other local political leaders even in my conservative state of Alabama are having to yield to practicality as the numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases keep rising and the confirmed deaths start to manifest themselves, public officials are ordering beaches to be closed, lockdowns to be put into place, quarantines be put in order, and the cancellations of all public activities. Reminding me of the wisdom of Queen Liliuokalani in ordering quarantines while looking out for her people. And how in a nation that proudly boasts of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”, it is true. The lives of all people are more important than an economy that can later rebound. Especially, with the combined help of both the young and the old.



Luisa Kay Reyes has had pieces featured in "The Raven Chronicles", "The Windmill", "The Foliate Oak", "The Eastern Iowa Review", and other literary magazines. Her essay, "Thank You", is the winner of the April 2017 memoir contest of "The Dead Mule School Of Southern Literature". And her Christmas poem was a first place winner in the 16th Annual Stark County District Library Poetry Contest. Additionally, her essay "My Border Crossing" received a Pushcart Prize nomination from the Port Yonder Press. And two of her essays have been nominated for the "Best of the Net" anthology. With one of her essays recently being featured on "The Dirty Spoon" radio hour.

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