If you want to pinpoint your origins, how far back do you go? How far back do you want to trace your parents’ parents, then their parents, then theirs, on back to where?
If you’re into the whole Ancestry.com thing, then you’re in it for the long haul. Me, I’m not. I’m in it for the short haul. My origin point, the one that most interests me, is how my parents met, did the deed, and had me.
There’s more of an emotional attachment to that “beginning.” Sure, I loved my grandparents well enough, but my attachment was not as strong as that to my mom and dad. I know it’s different for others. I know people who love their grandparents more than their parents. I never had enough of an emotional attachment to mine to make that call.
One of the reasons is that my mom’s parents didn’t speak English. I could never really communicate with them, and although I did spend time with them, our interactions were silent.
They found the cist on my paternal grandfather’s spine just after I was born. When he had the surgery to remove it, the doctor accidentally severed some nerves that put him in a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. By the time I was old enough to know him, he’d become a solitary alcoholic, unhappy about everything, sitting in that chair staring out the window he eventually pushed himself through when I was in junior high.
His wife, once he began to withdraw into his inebriatedly silent world, declined as well, sitting in their living room watching TV and knitting. Knitting all the time. Sometimes when my parents would leave me to be watched by her, I’d sit there for eight hours of TV and her knitting. Funny thing was, she rarely made anything of utilitarian value. All of her endless projects were strange shapes of all kinds of sizes. I guess you could call them wall hangings, but that would be a cruel pun since, in the end, she did knit herself a noose with which she hung herself about a year after my grandfather went out the third-floor window.
Normally, you’d expect someone to have a good chance to live through a fall that short, survive with some injuries that might persist. Since he had already passed that stage thanks to the bungled surgery, I guess he just wanted to die so badly that three stories were enough.
You don’t have to fall very far at all to break your neck. A friend of mine broke his in a three-foot fall from a stone wall. He was rocking back and forth, slipped backward, and broke it. He died on the spot.
But back to my parents. They met at the beach, way back when the beach was a pleasant place to go. Uncrowded. Less touristy. And this is important: There were many fewer weirdos wandering around. Now, this wasn’t a beach like here in Hawai‘i. This was a beach in the Midwest where they both went to school.
It’s funny what they call “beaches” in the Midwest. There actually are swathes of rocky shore on the Great Lakes. I mean it’s not the ocean and there’s rarely any sand, but they call them beaches, nonetheless.
Now my mom, who was from here in Honolulu traveled way over there to school, and whenever she could, she went to various beaches along Lake Michigan. She’d try to relax on these rocky shorelines, but it was nothing like Waikīkī Beach with the fine sand and warm sun.
No. Even on sunny days, she still felt cold. And the water, she said, was way too frigid for her to swim in. Most days, she said, she could hardly get in over her knees. Growing up a swimmer, she never swam in the Great Lakes. Still, she’d do her best to recreate the beach-going experience of her youth.
Anyway, one day she lay uncomfortably scrunched up, reading her Spanish textbook when, out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the great-looking Haole guy emerge from the water. She said she was immediately taken by his body, and the way he shook the water out of his hair made her think of Hollywood movie stars emerging from their dreamy ocean plunges.
She watched him towel off, drooling over him, more or less. She said he was the most handsome man she’d ever seen.
He sat down and picked up a book. Maybe he was a student too? she wondered. He did look as though he were in her age range, give or take.
Now my mother never struck me as what I would call a bold person, but when I think about it now, for a Hawai‘i girl to venture all that way to attend university, back in the late 40s, well, that really was bold. Brave. Adventurous. And because she was Japanese, wandering around a very Haole part of the country post World War II, I’d have to give her huge points for courage.
Now as she sat there admiring the guy who both could read and was good-looking, she wondered whether he might be prejudiced toward Asian women. If she brought him home, would he be put off by the fact that her parents spoke only Japanese?
These thoughts whirled around her brain, but in her heart of hearts, she knew that if she let this Adonis pass by without trying something, anything, to at least get his attention, she had a strong suspicion she might regret it for the rest of her life.
What to do, what to do. And then it came to her. Dropping her book she stood up and walked toward the water in such a way as to maneuver herself between the guy and the water. Then, walking straight toward the water, she stepped in, forcing herself to go deeper into the freezing zone than she ever had before. It amazed her that perhaps her heart was pumping so hard it raised her body temperature up to burning.
So she dove it and popped up immediately.
“Help!” she cried. “Help!”
She forced her head under the water, then popped up again, again calling for help.
The object of her desire had dropped his book. Jumping up, he ran toward the water. So did a couple of other men enjoying beach time, and my mom prayed that her man was faster than the rest.
Fortunately, he hit the water and came to her in just a few strong strokes. Grabbing her around the neck, he side-stroked them back to shore, standing as soon as he could.
“Are you all right?” he asked my mom.
“Oh, thank you so much,” she said. “I don’t know why I did that. I can’t even swim.”
To her surprise, he laughed. The expression on her face stopped him. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said. “The way you said it, it hit me as funny.”
Instead of berating him, my mom started laughing too. The man took her by the hand and they walked up out of the water and onto the shore.
“Are you okay now?” he asked.
“Oh yes, yes, I’m fine. I owe you my life,” she said.
He laughed again. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “If I were drowning, and you could swim, you’d try to save me, right?”
My mom suddenly felt terrible. “I,” she hesitated, “I have to tell you the truth. I’m from Hawai‘i. I grew up on the beaches there. I actually am a very good swimmer.”
He stared at her. Finally, he said, “Well, what was that all about then?”
Even though she was quite cold now, my mom blushed. “I’m so sorry. I, I wanted to do something to get your attention,” she said.
Now, surprisingly, he blushed. “What? My attention? Ah, okay, well, you got it.”
He wasn’t angry. And he surely didn’t seem prejudiced by her Japanese face. My mom breathed a big sigh of relief. And then, as if she hadn’t been bold enough already, she opened her mouth and said, “Would you like to go to a movie?”
The man smiled. “Yes,” he said, “that would be great.”
So that’s my origin story. The one that means something to me. Means the most to me. How my mom’s unexpected bravery hooked my dad. That’s where I truly began.