My relationship with my mother’s side of the family has always been a little complicated. My mother, and most of her nine brothers and sisters, were taken from their home as children by CPS and forced into the foster system. Growing up, my mother’s relationship with them was touch and go—not the usual/ideal American Family. The reasons this happened were, again, complicated. One of them was because of my grandmother. My grandparents were not abusive to their children, but my grandmother had a stroke after giving birth to her last child and my grandfather—for whatever reasons—decided to leave her and his ten children.
I’m not going to defend my grandfather’s actions. I believe that what he did was wrong, and if your impression is the same, it’s obvious that he erred in decision. But my opinion on his choice hardly means anything. He remains my grandfather.
Growing up, I heard a lot about my grandfather, but I did not meet him until my grandmother’s (mother’s mother) funeral. My own mother was in Florida at the time. My father took me to the funeral. I was young—I can’t remember exactly how old—probably no older than ten, if even that. My memories of the funeral are fleeting. I remember that it was in the Catholic style. There was an open casket. I chose not to go look at the body. I have never been interested in looking at open casket funerals. The other memory that I hold clearly is meeting my grandfather. It was a hot day and the sun shone like a wound. I remember that my grandfather seemed to loom over me like a giant, his head full of thick, grand hair. The sun shone through it, giving him a saintlike aura. My father spoke to him, and introduced his grandchildren. I can’t remember what he said in response, but I don’t think it was much. That was my grandfather.
The older I get, the more important my heritage has become to me. My heritage has always been present in my life. From my mother’s bookshelves being lined with books on native history, to the southwest diamonds and triangles patterns that dominated the fabric in our house, to the portraits of Cochise and Geronimo that my mother kept on the walls. They used to call my mother and her siblings the “Ten Little Indians,” and that was part of me. But as a child I was far more concerned with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Nirvana and girls. It took awhile for the weight of my ancestry to wake me up. When it did, I wanted to meet my grandfather again. I knew that my uncle and some of my cousins had moved to Hawaii to live near him, and had a relationship with him that I was envious of—even though I barely knew him personally. I had big dreams of going to see him and sit with him for hours and ask him endless questions about our family and where we came from. I know a lot of these answers—but reading them in a book is nothing compared to hearing them from the lips of your family.
Money has always been scarce, and priorities always clamouring for my attention and fighting and nipping at each other like rabid dogs. Flying to Hawaii was put off and put off and put off again. When my grandfather had visited California for my grandmother’s funeral, my mother had been in Florida. She had still never met him. She finally started developing a relationship with him again about five years ago. She talked with me often about meeting him and how happy she was to finally have a father—he had welcomed her with open arms. She had even gone to visit him in Hawaii. My dream of going to meet him as well became prominent again and I started to imagine that it would be very soon.
When my mother got the call that he had passed, I had still only met him the one angrily hot day of mourning, and I could not remember if he had even spoken to me or not. My mother sent me a text from work to tell me. I was alone in her house except for my brother Tony, who was playing video games in his room. I sat there, uncertain of how I should feel. I went online and saw that my cousin had made a post about her own pain. She said something along the lines of, “I can’t believe this nightmare. I just want to wake up.” I am misquoting slightly, but that was the general idea. This was one of my cousins who grew up in Hawaii and had a relationship with my grandfather. I read her post, trying to focus on how she must feel. I read the multitude of comments of support that followed. I finally wrote, “I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel.” Maybe that is not the most appropriate response to the death of one’s grandfather—but it was how I felt. I searched my feelings and—I cannot lie to you, there wasn’t a part of me that missed my grandfather. I didn’t know him! I didn’t feel sad for the loss of someone close to me. I wasn’t close to him! What I did feel was a misery at having not known him and not been close to him. I didn’t feel the loss of the man, I felt the loss of the relationship I never had with the man—a relationship I very deeply wanted.
My mother was gone most of the day. She had left work and gone straight to the home of my grandmother’s sister where his Californian family had gathered upon hearing the news. When she finally did come home, she shared with me a similar feeling. My mother had developed a relationship with him in his final years and was glad for it, but she sat in her aunt’s house, listening to his siblings mourn him—they spoke of his greatness, of what a great brother and provider and father-figure he was to them—and she felt disconnected. He wasn’t a provider or a father to her. He was an unknown for almost her entire life. She was sad, and mourned his loss, but she felt like she was mourning a different person than his siblings were. Nevertheless, she told me that she wanted to go to the funeral in Hawaii. I told her that I wanted to go with her. I had put it off so long, now that he was gone I would be a fool to put it off a moment longer.
When I got on the train to return to Washington, my mind was a storm and my heart was contentious. I sat next to my father for most of the ride, who loved watching the landscape roll by. I could not focus. I spent most of the trip in headphones, trying—unsuccessfully—to write about the experience. Maybe it was too raw in my head. I didn’t know where I stood on any of this. But I wrote almost nothing on the trip home. I went through some writing exercises and that was all I had in me. When I got home, I poured myself into games to get away from the confusion that I felt.
The trip to Hawaii was arranged while I largely ignored my father’s side of the family. I called my grandmother a few days after she got out of the hospital to see how she was. She was cheerful and reassuring as usual. I let her reassure me. I wanted to be reassured.
The day that Camille and I got on the plane to Hawaii felt like an adventure. I had never before been outside of the North American continent. Oh, sure, I’ve been all over the States, Canada and Mexico—but never further. So I had a Samwise Gamgee moment of taking one step farther, and being further than I’ve ever been. We had accidentally been assigned to first class seats, and the trip was a dream. They served us drinks with pineapple juice and “traditional” Hawaiian cuisine (it was not) in celebration of our trip. Our plane even had a cute flower garland painted on the side.
When we arrived, two of my cousins, including the “big brother role model” I had when I was a kid, Richard, picked us up. Hawaii was unbearably hot and muggy, but I was so happy to see Richard and Eric that I didn’t care. Once I was in the car with them—everything that I had been feeling, all of the confusion and fear—just faded away. I hadn’t seen Richard in years, and Eric wasn’t taller than four feet the last time I had seen him.
They drove us straight to where my family had been gathered for a barbecue. My mother, two of my aunts, my uncle, his wife, all four of his kids, and Richard, plus girlfriends and fiance’s and children. An old fashion family barbecue in Hawaii with faces that I loved but hadn’t seen for years. Since I had moved to Washington, the only family I had seen were my Aunt Connie, Uncle Adolf and two cousins Nita and Natalie. Aunt Connie was here, but for everyone else it felt like it had been a lifetime.
I learned, from my family, and from my grandfather’s sister, that there was a lot more going on in my grandfather’s history than I had ever realized. I knew that when he came to Hawaii he had started a new family, and had more children than the original ten. But I also learned that between my family and his new family, he had stopped along the way to have seven more children. All in all, my grandfather had twenty children that we are certain of, with three different women. My mother was the ninth born of all twenty: almost directly in the middle. His most recent family, his wife, two daughters, and son, were responsible for the funeral—but as far as I understood they had been communicating with the other children as well.
That same night, at the barbecue, my Aunt Connie was contacted and asked if she had any pictures that she would like to have included in the service—the service was the next day at nine a.m. She gave them the only picture she had on her—a picture on her phone of the two of them. She had more pictures, but they were all located back at her home in California. She gave them the only thing she could. I don’t believe my mother was asked.
The next morning we had breakfast with my great aunt and an aunt I had never met—she was from the second family of seven—and learned about her family to a degree. She was the only member of her family to make the trip to Hawaii. I have no idea if she was ever contacted to discuss involvement in the funeral, contributing pictures, or otherwise. She was very distraught with the loss and was barely communicative. Like my mother, she had only just began developing a relationship with her father in the past few years.
Like in the case of my grandmother’s funeral, the funeral was very Catholic. My grandfather was Náayarite (Cora) Indian and had grown up in a cave in Mexico. My whole family has a lot of Mexican pride, but none of it matched my grandfather’s pride in being Mexican. A Catholic funeral was appropriate for him. There were some differences, however. A Protestant priest was also invited to speak, and as Protestants will, spent as much time evangelizing as he did speaking about my grandfather. It is worth noting that my grandfather described himself as an atheist. But his wife and daughters were Protestants, and as I mentioned, they were in charge of arranging the funeral. You can decide for yourselves how to feel about that. It did not bother me nearly as much as the following:
Besides the priests, there were six speakers at the funeral, in the following order: My grandfather’s sister, his wife, his friend of around a year, his son, his two youngest daughters. I asked my mother and aunt. Neither of them were invited to speak—neither was my uncle who had lived in Hawaii with him for most of my life, around twenty five years. Linda, from the second family, was not invited to speak either. During the funeral, they showed a vast collection of photographs of my father. They ranged from when he was a young man (around the time he was married to my grandmother) with a discernible gap in age until he was an older man, marrying his latest wife, spending time with his youngest children, and their grandchildren. The picture my Aunt Connie had sent was not included. There were, in fact, no pictures of him with his first ten children or next seven children or any of the grandchildren those children gave him until the very end, when people were leaving to eat. They slipped in one single picture of my grandfather with my Uncle Arthur, the one who had moved to Hawaii with him.
I ate quietly, joked with my family, tried to be cheerful but respectful. We left to go witness the burial. We went back to our hotel.
I want to be as clear as possible in this retelling. First, this is obviously from my perspective. They never made an attempt to communicate with me, that I can confirm—but why would they? I was a grandchild, but I didn’t have a close, direct relationship with my grandfather: clearly not as close as they had. The accounts from the perspective of others I take as truths and see no reason why they wouldn’t be, but I cannot present them as hard facts. Also, I am obviously going to be biased toward the family that I know and love, not virtual strangers who are, by blood, aunts and uncle to me. I understand that they loved their husband and father. I understand that their loss was real and their mourning was real and their pain was real. I am not terribly interested in trying to tear them apart for the choices they made. I am telling the story to try and come to grips with how I feel about losing my grandfather, and the choices they made have an effect on how I feel. Their choice to exclude his first family, firstborn children and firstborn grandchildren—his youngest daughter is a year older than me—their choice to exclude his second family, whom I only became aware of that same trip, effected me. It made me angry. I don’t see how it could not have. I don’t want to hold this against people who I should be fostering a relationship with, but I also cannot hide it—or at least I don’t believe I should.
His oldest daughter—I will not include her name here—told me that she didn’t even know why I was at the funeral. When she saw me, she said, she thought to herself, “Who is this white boy and what is he doing here?” I should note that my grandfather’s third family was Samoan, (mine is Chiricahua, I can’t speak for the second, but Linda was very clearly Hispanic) and their perception of “white boys” is probably different than mine. I will also note I was the only one at the funeral wearing a suit and tie. The colour I have lost since moving to sunless Washington state and the fancy dress probably did no more favours, but when I heard her say this, I interrupted—I had been drinking—”I am his grandson!”