Over the summer my 87-year-old mother and I attended a family reunion on my late father’s side. We stayed at a charming two-story hotel called the Flagship Inn in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. One of the highlights was the complimentary breakfast, served in a small building on the other side of the parking lot with a sign that read Restaurant over the two front doors. It was the ideal place to reminisce over a cup of coffee.
On the last morning my mom and I got there early, so we sat down at one of the long tables to save seats for cousins Cherie, Bob, Ruth, and Al. Within a few minutes an older gentleman in his 70s and a woman (his wife, I’m assuming) sat down across from us.
When the woman got up to go through the buffet line and my mom went to the restroom, I decided to make conversation with the man, who was giving me a bit of a quizzical look. I explained how my parents had met in Japan and how Maine was where my grandparents had retired. I quickly realized he wasn’t really listening to me. Instead, he was staring at my face. I paused, and then he looked at me and said, “One of my sons married a Filipino woman. Their children have half-slanted eyes, too.”
My father was stationed in the Army during the end of the Korean War when he met my mother in the summer of 1955. They had a whirlwind romance, got married that December, and lived in Yokohama, Japan, for three years before moving to the United States. That gave my grandfather, who had served as a chaplain in Europe during World War Two, enough time to get used to the idea of his American son marrying a native from a country that had been on the wrong side of a world war.
A flurry of letters back and forth helped pave the way for an emotional first meeting, and by the time Mom and Dad arrived in the US in 1958, my grandparents couldn’t wait to hug their new daughter-in-law. In preparation, Grams had read several books on Japan and developed a talk for her ladies’ groups called “I Enter a New World.” At the first big family gathering that my mom attended, the only gaffe was when some well-meaning uncle called her Topeka before being corrected.
After Grams and Gramps retired in the late 1960s, Mom and Dad brought my siblings and me to their cottage in Maine every summer. I realize only now how much I took those glorious three-month vacations for granted. They were a staple of my childhood. I was keenly aware that everyone around me was white, unlike back home in Western New York, where I interacted with friends and classmates of different ethnicities and races. Yet the racial homogeneity of Ocean Park, a small town just south of Portland, never bothered me. I never felt out of place or unwelcome.
Ocean Park was home, thanks in no small part to the enthusiastic embrace of my grandparents, and all the doting aunts, uncles, and cousins. I still have vivid memories of building sandcastles at the beach, splashing around in the ice-cold water, whether at high tide or low, stuffing myself with blueberry muffins from Jordan Marsh, and simply hanging out with people who loved me.
I remember cousin Patsy giving me a piggyback ride as a bunch of us walked back to the cottage one evening. I remember Aunt Shirley, Uncle Bob, Uncle Ed, and Gramps — all diehard Red Sox fans — huddled around the big television set during a baseball game. From the way the armchair coaches were hollering, I assumed Carl Yastrzemski was the worst player in the world. I remember playing board games with cousin DeDe, my sister Elaine, and Grams whenever it was too cold or rainy to venture down to the beach. So many more memories float to the surface when I realize the joy that was — and still is — Maine.
When summer ended and it was time for all of us to pile into the car and head back to Buffalo, the goodbyes weighed heavily, especially on Gramps. Usually loud and jovial, he would have watery eyes and be clutching his hanky. It was a little jarring, to see him so subdued. I dreaded the sloppy wet kisses and bearhugs that were inevitable, once Dad finished loading up the car.
I can still picture Gramps, with his deep summer tan and blue Hawaiian shirt, standing on the patch of blacktop driveway in front of the cottage and waving as we drove away. “Until next summer…”
My grandmother’s memorial service in 2000 was the only time I saw my father cry. By the time she died at age 93, my grandfather had been gone for more than 20 years. Days before her service, Dad labored over the tribute he would read. When it was time for him to speak, he stood and looked out at the familiar faces of friends and family members. His 6-foot-2 frame towering over the small podium, he took out his handwritten notes and began reading in his emphatic professor’s voice. There was an uncomfortable pause and soon, he could barely open his mouth without sighing, sniffling, and sobbing. He told the story of how a young American soldier, away from home for the first time in his life, traveled halfway around the world with the army and fell in love with a Japanese woman. He spoke of his parents’ warm welcome when the two of them returned to the US to make a home.
As he stood there, grief-stricken and exposed, Dad confessed that he couldn’t imagine how life would have been, had his parents not welcomed Mom into the family.
I’m thinking of that elderly man I met in the dining area of the Flagship Inn. Our exchange lasted for just a few minutes, so I really can’t say if he meant me ill or if he was just being obtuse. But for a few excruciating moments, I slipped back in time and remembered what it felt like to be an insecure little girl who sometimes questioned her worth but whose confidence soared under the loving gaze of her American Grammie and Gramps. While it’s tempting to blame the man’s lack of grace on age or to label him a bigot and move on, I can’t help thinking about his own grandchildren.
I believe that the opposite of love is fear. And to conquer that fear, we must search our own hearts. What prejudices do we each harbor because of, or despite, our life experiences?
“Diversity may be the hardest thing for a society to live with, and perhaps the most dangerous thing for a society to be without.” ~ William Sloane Coffin