When my grandmother died, it felt like a piece of me had left. That seems like something you would say when a parent dies or when your twelve-year-old dog dies, but not your grandma. I remember it clearly. I was moving out of my apartment and only my mother came up to help me. She whispered it in my ear and I ran downstairs to give my father a hug. He wasn’t crying, none of us were crying. We drove home in silence, but every so often, Mother would say something to change the mood. Once we were home, I noticed a flag, folded in the traditional trifold, mounted over the bed in the guest room.
When I hear the story over and over again, I don’t think of it as the story of how my grandparents survived and met, I think of it as my story. The very fact that they survived helped to write my own story of existing. It’s a personal story, but it is also a story that others have written and I have become a part of. With that, I will begin the story here.
My story starts on a ship, a battleship. It was rightfully named in honor of the 48th state’s admission into the union. A fellow by the name of George was standing on the upper deck, watching a handful of the crew raise the American flag. Miles away, a nurse named Gene was working hectically when another nurse whispered something about a war. Back on the ship, December 6th, a call was sent out for a relocation. The General said, “Alright, who’s sick of Hawaii?” George hopped ship and sailed back to the mainland. Just in time.
George was awoken by yelling. His pal stood over him with a scared look on his face, a face George would never forget. The kind of face that you see on all the new recruits the first time they see war. It’s a face of horror, a face of not knowing what will come next. “The Arizona, George, it’s been hit! It’s gone under!” George checked his watch. 8:10. He rolled out of bed and slipped on his boots. “Boy, sure glad we weren’t on it.” George didn’t know what compelled him to make a joke like that. An overwhelming feeling of relief and horror struck him as he said the words. In the back of his mind, he knew that he was lucky, but he also couldn’t help but think about what would have happened to him if he had stayed. He suddenly understood the look on his pal’s face.
Maybe it was luck, but George survived. He didn’t die that day, but he would get injured from a fly-by later on. He would be rushed to the nearby hospital and meet a gorgeous woman with curly brown hair. Gene, the nurse. That was in Atlanta. At that point, George was on leave but spent a few years working in non-combat jobs. A few years later, Gene, alongside other women would assist in the creation of a “Little Boy” and a “Fat Man.” George and Gene got married and had a son named Steven. Their son would grow up to be an engineer, an Air Force man, and a father. Steven was raised on military values, but George and Gene also gave him a childhood much different from theirs. In years of war and turmoil, all you want is to have a happy childhood, and that is what George and Gene gave to Steven. Years later, Steven would marry a Thai woman and have a single daughter. Enter Maia.
When Maia was twelve, she and her parents moved to Camano Island so that they could be closer to George and Gene. They became a second Mother and Father to Maia. When she was young, they would look after Maia while her parents ran marathons and went to work. She would love spending the night at their house and watching The Joy of Painting with Gene on her brown and orange couch while Cleo, the Dalmatian, sat in between them. Gene was the one who inspired Maia to start writing, while George inspired her to try a more hands on type of artistry.
They were both artists. Gene was an artist with her hands, much like Maia was an artist with her writing. George made art with machines, but he liked to carve as well. They both taught Maia about incorporating feelings into artistry. Maia was intrigued. Almost every day, Maia would go over to Gene and George’s house and watch Gene paint some woodwork that George had carved, or sit and watch Gene sew doilies and quilts. She watched as they found meaning in what they created, how meaning formed right before her very eyes with every stitch and cut.
When Maia started writing in high school, she would bring her work to Gene and show it to her. Gene wouldn’t be afraid to point out what she didn’t like. She would say something like, “If you want this to be good writing, make it personal.” Gene was frail, but she had the mouth of a snake. Personal? In the future, Maia sits in front of her computer, thinking about how Gene would describe personal. And then she remembers something that Gene had told her once. While the two of them watched as George carved out the letters of Maia’s name into a handmade desk, Gene said, “He wasn’t going to put your name on it, in case you wanted to give it to your children, but it’s his own personal touch. He wants this desk to be for you and you only.” Personal. Crafted by you, written by you, carved out by you. I realized that something so simple, such as writing your name on something, makes it personal.
When I think about my grandparents, I think about an item that reminded me the most of them. I could have picked the desk that my grandfather made for me, but what memories could that bring up? I only saw him carve my name onto the front. I could have picked the chair that my grandfather sat in every weekend when I went to watch a movie with him, but I would only be left with a scent. But that flag, as my father had told me many times, was the flag that was raised on the USS Arizona that day before Pearl Harbor. Every time I look at it, I think about my story and how it wouldn’t be written if, by some twist of fate, my grandfather had not been relocated. My grandparent’s story is my story.
My grandmother gave the flag to my father after my grandfather died. I admired how lucky they both were. I was never there to witness both of their deaths, but I do know that they both died peacefully, with smiles on their faces. Maybe they both realized how lucky they were to live such amazing lives.