dad – claiming heritage without going back
Posted by contentgrrl on December 23, 2007
One of the reasons I started this blog was to honor my heroes and heroines in life and literature. I’ve got a long list of names in my drafts, but I’m having trouble feeling like I can do any of them justice.
I have had the privilege this year to scan a photo album that belongs to my dad, the perpetual boy scout. His father was a scout cadet and leader as well. So my dad’s been in uniform all his life. And considering what happened during WWII, I don’t blame him for wanting to become a U.S. soldier and therefore a U.S. citizen.
It’s been interesting to see all the photos of old classmates and girlfriends, but the thing that really chokes me up is all the notes written affectionately from my grandfather to “Pepito” on the backs of these photos. I’ve scanned these notes as well, and will display in the photo albums I make for family.
After my dad came to New York for his medical residency, there’s a set of photos showing the house that was built with the money he sent back, with a note about the penthouse reserved for him when he comes back home. And there are several pictures of a young lady, apparently friendly with my grandmother, who writes with great affection for my dad. And then, abruptly, there’s a message “To Pepito and Judy” right around the time that dad married my mother, who was just out of nursing school near the hospital where Dad was a resident. And then there are pictures of my uncle and godfather, who also emigrated to New York around the time I was born.
I denied my heritage for a long time. By the time I was a teenager, Dad had settled in a small country town that is the complete opposite of cosmopolitan. I strived not to look too different. And, studious introvert that he was, he never spoke to me of our heritage or his story. And so, studious introvert that I was, I never thought to ask.
In college I dated a guy who had been stationed in my family’s country; what he knew of my heritage was gained from what a soldier might know, the underbelly.
I married a man who guessed my heritage; he thinks women from my family’s country are the most beautiful in the world. It’s a nice sentiment, but certain stereotypes haunt me. My dh’s grandfather had been stationed there in WWII, and also recollected that country’s horrifying underbelly.
Dad left the islands and went back only for funerals, to bring back pearls for his daughters. I suspect there is an unspoken pain he would rather not burden the present with. But when I asked him why he didn’t go back to live, he simply said he felt that there was better opportunity for him here in the States.
I have followed his example even while I was unaware of it; as much as I want him to be a part of my sons’ lives, I definitely don’t want to move back to that small town, or even the larger town nearby. I chose the town where we live now, within easy driving distance but not so close that we see each other every month. And it’s hard to let go of a steady job that I like so much, even when I remain isolated from family and friends.
I would love to go back to the islands when I have a good opportunity; there was another funeral for an uncle I never met recently, but with all the terrorists it has become very dangerous for an American citizen abroad there. My sons need a mother more than I need to visit that hornet’s nest.
But I will take the opportunity to ask what I can while I can, and make sure my children know their grandfather and great uncle. And I resolve to chip away at the walls of isolation that I have built up around us.
I’d like to share a related story that touched me: Reclaiming Ownership of My History.