The story of my grandparents is one that I've been told so many times that I can describe it to you as if I was there myself. My grandmother was from a small seaside tropical town in which a rich sugar-producing plantation industry faded over time and left nothing in it's wake but unemployed laborers and poverty.
My grandfather was a blue collar worker from a larger community on an adjoining island who moved to my grandmother's smaller town because he found a job working in the tourist industry. They met, she got pregnant, and sometime after (or before, depending on which one of my aunties is telling the story) they married. 9 months later my father was born. My grandfather, equipped with a 4th-grade education and enough masculine bravado for three adult bulls, decided that for any chance at a better life his family would need to leave their homeland, so 59 years ago they bought three one way tickets for San Francisco and never looked back.
As you may be guessing from my obvious middle-class perspective, the gamble that my grandparents took paid off big time. Their first born, my father, blessed with freakish intelligence and merciless determination, got a sports scholarship to UC Berkeley and put himself through law school. He is now one of the most decorated judges in California state history. My father has 3 college educated children of his own, of which I am the youngest. Now, for most families this case of triumph against the forces of poverty would be the last scene in our feel-good Lifetime Original Movie. However in my family's case, this is just where the story starts to get weird.
What I haven't mentioned up until this point was that the land of my grandparents is not a foreign country but in fact Hawaii, and that through some bizarre twist of fate I now find myself living in the same sleepy small town in which my father was born almost six decades ago. Like some Oprah-endorsed coming of age book find I myself trying to figure out the next step in my life by walking down the same rain battered streets, working in the same cockroach infested stockrooms, and grappling with the same horrendous job market that forced my grandfather to uproot his family back in the 50's. How did I get here? When did I wander into a Kafka novel?
The short answer is my girlfriend. We met our last year in college and in our first conversation we discovered that she was from the same coastal town on the Big Island of Hawaii where my dad was born. This eerie coincidence didn't prevent us from falling madly in love and four years later, after stops in both Oakland and Prague, we decided that a move to Hawaii would be beneficial for us both so that she could spend some time with her family and I could get to see what life is like in the tiny homeland of my family. In principle this was a good plan. However, what I underestimated was how strange it would be to walk in the footsteps of my direct predecessors.
My grandfather passed away when I was, so although we spent quite a lot of time together when I was young he passed before I was able to relate to him man to man. Exasperating this communicative gap was the fact that he had a massive stroke shortly after my birth so most (if not all) of my memories of him revolve around him sitting in his Lay-Z-Boy eating pork rinds watching TV. This being so, almost everything I know about him has been patched together from other sources such as stories told to me by my aunts and uncles or the old black-and-white photos that my grandmother kept after his death. From these sources I have surmised that the frail yet still boyishly handsome habitual flannel wearer that I grew up adoring was, in actuality, a much different character before his youth prematurely faded.
In my estimation my grandfather was a straight man cast alongside a company of jokers. While everyone else in his family was quick to laughter and horseplay, my grandfather was a stern and deeply religious man who was as hard on his kids as his seldom used smile was endearing. He played guitar, but as my father told me seemed dissatisfied by his inability to play flawlessly. He commanded as much fear as adulation by his children and I've heard my father and his brother talk about how much they strove to make him proud, although they seem unsure if they ever were able to. He was a man who definitely kept his cards held closely to his chest.
Walking around these streets that smell like a perfect blend of fresh flowers and fruit slowly rotting on the ground I am left to wonder if my grandfather's serious streak was precisely what was needed for him to decide to leave his homeland with nothing but his wife, two suitcases, very little money and my infant father in search of a better life. Perhaps Hawaii's laid back approach to life clashed too much with his own no-nonsense demeanor. I've seen the first picture that my grandparents took right after they got off the boat in San Francisco a few dozen times and it is forever burned into my memory. I can see the large ship, two suitcases and two figures cuddling my father wrapped up tightly in a white blanket.
The only problem is that I can't remember their facial expressions.
Do they look scared about starting a new life or perhaps tired from their long journey? Do they look serious or tentatively optimistic? Perhaps it wasn't a streak of seriousness but a streak of arrogance that drove my grandfather to leave here. I've also seen another picture of my him taken a few years later walking down the streets in downtown San Francisco puffing away at a cigarette (although he only had half a lung), looking like the type of man that no one tells what to do. In that picture I cannot tell whether the expression on his face is that of absolute confidence or that of overbearing arrogance. No matter how many stories I hear about my grandfather I can't put my finger on which end of that spectrum he fell.
Then again, as I look out over the lush Hawaiian green that so seamlessly transitions into the cool pale blue of the ocean and hear the crashing of the tides against the hot black volcanic sand, I wonder how much I can learn about my grandfather by simply walking down the same streets and looking at the same sights. As someone who doesn't believe in ghosts or spirits, I find it hard to wrap my head around why I feel so close to my grandparents here although they are long gone.
As I work in similar stock rooms to where my grandfather spent his working days, I wonder if I am as hard a worker as he was. I often daydream and cast myself as my grandfather faced with the same choice that he was. What if I was from this beautiful, yet so hard to excel in, town and had just had my first child? Would I pack up everything and leave with no guarantee of something better? Do I have that same unbreakable resolve that he clearly possessed? Would he disapprove of me coming back here? What is it about this place that feels faintly familiar? Am I a serious man like my grandfather whom I loved so much growing up?
Daniel J. Hernandez:
Daniel has a BA from UC Santa Cruz, has put out a few CDs and is a soccer player. He and his girlfriend are currently living in Hilo, Hawaii. Email the author