2007.06.10: June 10, 2007: Headlines: COS - Samoa: Return to our COS - Samoa: Atlanta Journal Constitution: Ties endure after thirty years for Samoa RPCV Carol Brantley

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Ties endure after thirty years for Samoa RPCV Carol Brantley

Ties endure after thirty years for Samoa RPCV Carol Brantley

Who could have predicted that hers would one day be among the children's names etched into the gravestone of the Samoan mother and father who had watched over her. Or that the parents would bequeath to her, along with her Samoan sisters and brothers, the right to put a house on the family land in Samoa — halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand. Or that the children of her Samoan sisters would refer to her as "Auntie" and her own mother in Georgia as "Grandma."

Ties endure after thirty years for Samoa RPCV Carol Brantley

Three decades later, Peace Corps volunteer's relationship with her 'family' endures

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Published on: 06/10/07

Caption: Peta Karalus and her 'sister' Carol Brantley paid respects together at the grave of Brantley's mother, who died in April. Photo: Kimberly Smith/Staff

She waited to take off, sitting in a small plane on a day sunny despite the Samoan rainy season. A garland of flowers made by her adopted sisters draped her neck. Carol Brantley was going home to Georgia.

After two years with the Peace Corps on a south Pacific island, she looked out the plane's window at the big family that had taken her in and the "parents" who had referred to her as their "American daughter."

She remembers "crying and crying and crying."

"I will never see them again," she thought.

What she didn't realize was that an adventure was beginning, one that would stretch across cultures and decades, expand the meaning of family and eventually lead to a small Georgia town, and truths that sisters shared beside a fresh Georgia grave.

Who could have predicted that hers would one day be among the children's names etched into the gravestone of the Samoan mother and father who had watched over her. Or that the parents would bequeath to her, along with her Samoan sisters and brothers, the right to put a house on the family land in Samoa — halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand. Or that the children of her Samoan sisters would refer to her as "Auntie" and her own mother in Georgia as "Grandma."

She couldn't have planned it then, in 1973, when she was 24. To try to do so wouldn't be fa'a Samoa, the Samoan way. It's supposed to be left to evolve naturally, in God's hands.

Brantley is a compact woman, nursing a recuperating knee at her house in Atlanta's Midtown. She has a quiet husband, David Webster, an attorney. They have no children. At 59, Brantley retains vestiges of her 20s — glowing cheeks and tomboyish brown hair clinging to her head like a swimmer's cap.

One of her Samoan "sisters," Peta Karalus, has come half the world's circumference to perform a family rite.

Brantley neither looks nor speaks like Karalus. Brantley is fair. Karalus, four years her junior, is dark. Brantley's English is seasoned by Georgia. Karalus' by New Zealand, with its hints of Britain. Brantley is quick to talk. Karalus is quiet, often only responding with a "hmmm."

Still, they act like sisters. When they speak, they tilt their heads together. When they laugh or share sorrows, they lean on each other.

A Georgian in Samoa

For months after she returned from Samoa, Brantley avoided her bed. It was no longer comfortable. Instead, she slept on the floor on thin Samoan mats woven from strips of dried banana leaves. She thought of the life she left behind: her adopted parents and 10 brothers and sisters — the same size as her family in Georgia. She missed Tapulei, the mother, and Pauli Tugia, the patriarch whose stern reputation made others avoid his compound in the small community of Tulaele near the capital of Apia.

Brantley went to Samoa to teach English; the Peace Corps arranged for her to live with the family. Pauli at first balked at her insistence that she be allowed to stay in a cool, open-air structure — a fale — on the family's property. He worried about traveling men trying to seduce her. Eventually he gave in, but sent two of his daughters to sleep beside her.

In the fale, the thatched roof leaked. Rats scurried above, defecating into the room. Privacy was uncommon there, or anywhere on Samoa.

One of the first skills the Peace Corps taught Brantley was how to use her lava-lava, a bolt of cloth that could be a skirt, a picnic blanket or, for modesty, a makeshift dressing tent with its corners clenched in her teeth.

She taught uniformed, dark-skinned children in a small metal-roofed school with screens instead of windows. There were few cars and limited indoor plumbing.

The life was different from anything Brantley had known. She was a star student at segregated Wrightsville High School, an independent woman who graduated from the University of Georgia with a master's in education. But she said she was embraced.

Tapulei and Pauli showed her unconditional love, she remembered, as well as devout Christianity and a deep commitment to family.

Testing family bonds

When she returned to Georgia, her days in Samoa slipped into memory.

There were few letters the first several years. Her Samoan family wrote to ask when she would visit. Her answers were vague. She didn't invite them to her wedding.

In the 1980s the letters became more frequent.

"I hope that you will never forget us as we will never forget our daughter in the United States," Pauli wrote in one.

Some letters he signed with his first name. Some he signed "Dad, Mum and family."

He wrote like a parent. He chided her for not writing often enough. When he received a photo of her, he ribbed her for putting on weight. And he would not so subtly cite the contributions made by her Samoan sisters and brothers — many of whom had moved to New Zealand for better jobs and advanced educations — to help the parents financially.

Brantley obliged. She packed boxes with cereal, barrettes, clothes, George Foreman grills. And she sent modest sums of money. She said she saw it as a reminder of the expectation that Samoan family members help one another.

She and her husband visited the family in Samoa and New Zealand. Samoan siblings came to visit her in Georgia. Soon the links extended beyond Brantley. A Samoan sister and her husband moved to New Jersey and visited more often, including stops in Wrightsville — an hour east of Macon — to see Brantley's mother and sisters. Other Samoan siblings came as well.

When Tapulei died, Brantley went to the funeral in New Zealand.

When Brantley's own mother died two months ago, her Samoan sisters and brothers sent flowers and made a plan to pay tribute. They decided Peta Karalus would join her husband, a doctor, on a scheduled trip to San Francisco for a medical conference in late May. Then the two would fly to Georgia. The couple would go with Brantley to Wrightsville and lay flowers on the grave of Virgiree Ivey Brantley. They would honor the family bond.

A Samoan in Georgia

Brantley and Karalus squealed as they slipped into each other's arms at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Then, in Brantley's 13-year-old Volvo, shooting through the Georgia countryside late at night, the two sisters shared family tales and giggled over stories of the wild youth of their shared Samoan father.

"I remember Mum and Dad were really sad and crying when you had left," Karalus told her sister. "It was like someone had died."

They arrived tired at Brantley's mother's small brick house, still full of the mother's presence. The baby blue comb she used to fluff her curly hair sat on the dresser, near Mother's Day cards. One read, "If mothers were flowers, you'd be the one I'd pick."

Brantley slipped into her mother's bedroom. "I always use one of my mama's nightgowns," she said as she opened a dresser drawer. She offered a gown to Karalus, who clutched the soft fabric against her neck and chest, like a child with a security blanket.

They padded barefoot into the wood-paneled family room.

Karalus was in New Zealand studying when Brantley stayed with her family in Samoa. The two don't remember meeting in person until years later. The idea that they were sisters, though, never seemed odd, Karalus said. She asked Brantley to be the godmother of one of her sons, Luke.

"Family connectivity is a big thing," Karalus says.

Photos of family and friends pepper Brantley's mother's home. A few of the faces are from the South Pacific. On a big picture of the four smiling children of Mase, one of Karalus' younger sisters, are the words "Love you, Grandma."

Virgiree Brantley had never heard of Samoa before her daughter went off to the Peace Corps. She rarely traveled outside Middle Georgia. But she valued her daughter's relationship with her Samoan family, said Colette Robertson, a sister of Brantley's.

"The fact that this family had taken care of her daughter meant a lot to her. That was godly in Mama's eyes," she said.

Robertson, who lives in LaGrange, joined Brantley, Karalus and other family members at her mother's home.

Robertson cried as she talked about her mother's death. She has opened the drawers in her mother's bedroom and peered into the closet, but she left crying, unable to give away her mother's things.

But on this day, in late May, she carefully unfolded a blanket and presented it to Karalus. It was made for the local historical society, with woven pictures of the county courthouse, a Masonic building and other area highlights.

"We would like to give you something very special that our mother treasured," Robertson told Karalus as family gathered around them. "We would like you to take it with you as our sister, on behalf of our mother."

"On behalf of my Mum and Dad and brothers and sisters I want to accept this with gratitude," Karalus said. "We'll all treasure this."

Another chapter

The family — including a nephew, a great-niece, an aunt and two of Brantley's siblings — gathered in Nana's Restaurant on the courthouse square. Before they feasted on fried chicken, coleslaw and peach cobbler, they clutched hands for a prayer. Karalus' husband, Noel, gave thanks for the bond between two families and sang a Samoan prayer.

Birds sang in Wrightsville's Westview cemetery. Tufts of flowers, many of them plastic, sat on several graves.

Virgiree Brantley's isn't yet marked with a slab. Brantley brought one of her sleeping mats from Samoa to lay over the dirt. She and Karalus knelt beside the grave, laying out bouquets, positioning ivy, turning a chain of bleached starfish bought earlier that day into an unlikely border.

When it's done, Brantley turned to Karalus. "Are you pleased with it, Peta?"

She nodded. "Very pleased."

After most of the Georgia family members who gathered for the ritual left, Brantley turned to Karalus. She said she is worried that, without her own children, the bond between the families will one day be severed.

They talked of life's circle that keeps bringing them back together.

And they talked about how it should stay unbroken, even in death. Karalus promised to come back to bury Brantley someday, to "farewell" her.

"Well," Brantley said, "you will have to come and take some of my ashes back to Tulaele."



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