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Stories stream from a mind overflowing with memories

By Michael Tsai

LAST UPDATED: 4:53 a.m. HST, Nov 8, 2011

When Gloria Valera opens her mouth, it's a good bet the first words to roll off her tongue will be, "I have a story ..."

What follows is always worth listening to. Give her a second to gather her thoughts and Valera will tell you all about how her father taught her and her sister Pat to swim by daring them to jump off the Kaunakakai wharf, or about the time her mother chased her around the house with a broom, trying to persuade her to drop out of night school, or perhaps the time her granddaughter nearly drowned in a pool, then woke up speaking in tongues.

"People always say to me, 'Oh, you and your stories!'" Valera says, laughing.

But what is life, after all, than a collection of stories? To the 71-year-old Valera's reckoning, crafting a good tale out of the rich stuff of memory is one of the privileges of age.

Valera grew up in Kualapuu, Molokai. Her father, Florentino Virgeniza, came to Hawaii from the Philippines with his family at age 4 and chose to stay behind when his father moved back home 10 years later. He worked as a heavy equipment operator for a pineapple plantation and served in the Army National Guard.

Valera's mother was born on Maui. As Valera would later learn, her mother was often brutalized by her brother, an amateur boxer. Valera believes the abuse contributed to the bouts of depression her mother suffered while Valera and her siblings were growing up.

"My dad did what he could to keep things together," Valera said. "He made sure we were in the right mind."

Valera remembers her father lifting her like a barbell as part of his morning exercises. She and sister Pat would also follow him on jogs around the camp and learned to catch his fast-pitch baseballs.

The family moved to Poamoho near Wahiawa when Valera was 12. After high school Valera enrolled at what was then Kapiolani Technical School. Her broom-wielding mother objected, but Valera stuck it out, thanks in large part to the encouragement she received from close friend Pauline Kamisato. Valera eventually landed a job at American Factors.

While attending a Credit Union dinner in Waikiki, Valera met her future husband, Cirilo, better known as Sonny. A day later Sonny called Valera's office and asked to speak to one of her friends.

"He asked if he could take her out to lunch," Valera says. "She said yes. Then he asked her if she could bring Gloria along. He was slick."

Sonny and Gloria will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in February.

These days, Gloria and Sonny, both happily retired, spend their days taking care of their grandkids, including 9-year-old Kayla, whose tomboy ways remind Valera a lot of herself.

In the spring, Gloria will begin classes at Leeward Community College at the behest of another granddaughter, Cami Silva.

"You have to keep learning," Valera says. "I'm thinking about taking a religion class. It should be another good story to tell."

Reach Michael Tsai at

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