I grew up out in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of corn fields. Two houses down from us sat a little house trailer with a couple of newlyweds. An older couple, but newly married to one another in 1980. Many times my brother and I could be found down at that little house trailer, usually underfoot of this couple, but always having a blast. They did more than tolerate us, they loved us. We shared our holidays together, they got my brother his first job, and when we were old enough they were the ones who bought us our “big kid” bikes – mine was a 15-speed Schwinn.
Here’s the thing – this couple was my grandmother and her husband. Not my actual grandfather, as they had divorced in 1977, but being as I was so young when Art came into our lives he was still known as “grandpa” to me.
Grandpa Art was quiet and didn’t say much. He loved going out to his woodshop and spending an entire day doing…well, he spent a lot of time out there tinkering on this, working on that, repairing something, building anything…just working. He had a smile that made his eyes squint into little lines, and when he laughed he would lean back and give his knee a little slap while he chuckled to himself.
He was also Hawaiian – straight from the islands, Hawaiian. All of his family were still living on the islands, but here he was in Northwest Ohio where many times he was seen as a black man married to a white woman. We all kind-of wondered about his life, and my parents tried to get him to open up, but the most we ever found out was that he had come from a large family with many brothers and sisters. He also told us that after the attack on Pearl Harbor he worked with the Army Corp of Engineers. Then he would often clam up, we assumed the memory of what happened there was too vivid, too disturbing for him to want to share any more.
Fast forward to a few years ago. I had started working on my family’s history, Grandpa Art had passed away a few years prior, and the idea of trying to research Hawaiian records to learn more about this quiet man was too good to pass up (and how great would THIS genealogy field trip be if I just had to go to the islands!). I had no idea what I was about to find.
Little did I know that the birthdate he had given us was not his true birthdate. I was able to track down a great-niece of his who was wonderful in helping me fill in the blanks on grandpa’s extended family. She also went to her mother who was able to tell her the family stories on her “uncle Art” – the man who left the island and went to Indiana to work and was living in Ohio.
You see, he didn’t cross the Pacific willingly. There was a reason he remained quiet about his life before, and there is a sad story of his life since coming to the mainland. A story that involves the wrong group of friends, and a cross-country trip trying to find his way afterward. There is the tragedy of his father coming all the way from Hawaii to Michigan to visit, only to die of pneumonia after he got here. All of these are just tiny puzzle pieces of a life that I have yet to put together to see the entire picture of my grandfather’s life.
But I know my grandpa, and there was a reason Grandpa Art was a quiet man. His memories of his life’s choices were his own demons that seemed to haunt him. As a genealogist, I can’t ignore the facts of his life, but I do choose to look at these details as the parts of the story that helped him to become the man we knew – the man who cherished our grandmother, and the quiet grandpa whom I loved.