The ribbons were crispy. Untied it seemed since she had first bound them. How long they sat untouched, I can only guess. So it was a ceremonial experience when I finally cut the ribbon.
The United States in the 1950s have been regarded as both a historically conservative and economically aggressive point in time in our history. The post-WWII environment yielded marked growth and a sizable expansion in domestic manufacturing. The Cold War contributed to an ongoing conservative sentiment that only intensified throughout the decade. Conformity dominated the minds of American citizens, from the reaction to the Korean War to the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower to the anti-communist sentiments of the McCarthy era and the space race incited by the launch of Sputnik. Ironically, it also spawned a rebellion toward conservative thought, giving way to reformed thinking that would shape our history. Domestically, the Civil Rights movement took rise with the 1954 Supreme Court ruling of Brown vs. the Board of Education. Literary marks were made with contributions like Lolita. And in the art community, abstract expressionism took hold globally, influencing a modern America and inspiring historical figures like Jack Kerouac. With much sacrifice from all corners, our country was in a period of profound maturity.
It’s in this atmosphere that my grandparents’ story begins. A story revealed through a trove of letters I stumbled across my senior year of college. In a shiny hat box, zipped shut, I found keys to a ‘95 Corolla adorned with a gold key chain boasting ‘Mary’, black and white pictures of her days in Hawaii working at a diner, pictures of their motorcycle gang, and most importantly, hundreds of love letters written during the war. What unfolded was unexpected. The contents of that box changed my perspective of their relationship profoundly.
My grandmother, born Mary J.S., was born on the big Island of Hawaii on April 21, 1931. A family of 10 siblings, she was the daughter of a large Hawaiian woman and a small (and from all accounts very mean) Filipino man. My grandmother only mentioned him briefly when we’d asked her to swim. She’d recount stories of traumatic swimming lessons when he’d throw her in the ocean. She spoke fondly of her siblings, Julie (the oldest), Caroline, and Manny (the youngest). She recounted her childhood climbing trees and avoiding the sun. Of a hurricane that decimated Hawaii, leaving them homeless. Of its arrival and how she ran to the beach to shrink her favorite dress. As an island-locked Hawaiian girl, she dreamed of adventure beyond those shores. So as an ambitious teenager, she enlisted as a Marine.
In 1952, she was transferred to Beaufort, South Carolina. For a young Hawaiian girl far from home, the south was anything but friendly — the political and social atmosphere unwelcoming. An increased military influence in the ‘50s caused the population to double. Undoubtedly, the shift in the landscape and the beginnings of a Civil Rights movement contributed to the hostility.
“As I boarded the bus, I took the first open seat. It was somewhere near the front, I think. The driver approached me and said, ‘You know you can’t sit there.’ I was angry. I knew why, but I was Hawaiian. It was then I realized brown was brown.”
My grandparents met in Oahu in 1953. They fell in love there — an island girl, and a white, navy boy from a small, Northwestern town called Scio. Race, distance, and passion, among other struggles, riddled their relationship. She became pregnant with their first son in 1955 and was honorably discharged. Meanwhile, my grandfather boarded a ship to Sasebo, Japan, located within Nagasaki. Mary moved to the small town of Scio with her in-laws, where she continued to be marginalized by the community. Her race wasn’t placeable, and she suffered the scrutiny of white locals who disapproved of an interracial marriage.
The letters I found detail the daily correspondence between these lovers, despite the odds. Like most communication between lovers, the intimate details are, well, intimate. Yet despite being so far apart, and the potential for relational distress, their correspondence lacked the drama of great novels. As I read through them, I was struck by their beautiful redundancy. Each day was simply an account of his time passing. They were riddled with small, intimate details that made a lovers’ story, only theirs. Every letter began the same: “Hi Honey.” Hundreds of them. And every letter ended the same — with undying love to his wife and son.
Well tonight I confiscated a typewriter to write you a letter an nice bright pink paper, pretty sexy no. Well I had better get a letter off to you, and I suppose this will be the last time I will be able to, as we are getting under way tomorrow afternoon around five, and they will take the boat’s off the water and on the ship around 1300. So I am going to make this free letter worth while.
There was no mail, but that is know one’s falt but the Navy’s, but we will have mail call when we get into Sasebo the 29th. And on the thirtyith, we are going to get paid, and I will go over and get a picture of me, I don’t care how it will cost, but I don’t care, as I have put it off long enough, right.
Had a pretty good movie tonight, it was “Serpent of the Nile” with Ronda Flemming. Sure was a sexy one, as she played the role of Cleopatra and her love’s. Have had some air force men on the ship the last two day’s looking it over and they stay for the movie, in which there isn’t enough room for the crew let alone for them to come along, so the last two night’s I have had to have my chair down there at 1600 and the movie don’t start untile 1945, so you just can imagine what it is like.
What did I do today, well I feel kind of guilty to tell you. I got up this morning, in which I thaught I had the watch, went to chow and went up on the bridge and found out I did’nt have the watch so I went down and hit the pad, untile 1100 and got up for chow and had to go on watch for real this time. Got off watch at 1700 and ate chow and just shot the s––– for a while, and went to the movie, and then I decided that I had better get a letter off to you my darling.
Well my darling, give Von a hug and kiss for me and I want you to take care of yourself to, I want you to gain some of that weight you have lost honey, so you look after yourself. I guess I will close for now, and I won’t get a letter off to you tomarrow, as we will be going to sea but as soon as I get to Sesebo I will get it right in the mail to you, and I should be gettin gone from you when I get there to. So goodnight my darling and have sweet dreams about us my darling, I love you so dam much honey, all I can think of is being home with you and our son, goodnight honey.
Your Husband Forever and Ever
“Till Death Do Us Part”
I love you my darling,
Your Ole’ Sea Daddy
P.S. Hugs and kisses to our son and my love to him,
from daddy and hugs and kisses to my loving wife from
your loving husband forever. I L O V E Y O U.