My father was sleeping, curled up in the small chair next to the picture window. I thought this strange, because he never sat in that chair. It was my mother’s perch, from which she peered out at the street watching for neighbors and waiting every day for the mail truck to arrive. When she was old, she’d doze on and off during the day and evening. I’d look at her and think she looked tired, worn out from seventy years of the burdens women carry.
Dad must have sensed I was nearby, and he suddenly awoke and looked at me. It was odd that he seemed younger than I. I said, “There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you. During the war, when did you leave the South Pacific and get sent to Texas?” I was conceived in Texas sometime in early 1945. I had always thought that the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had brought him home, but these were in August 1945. Why did he come back before that? Did he get a leave and then return? Was he wounded? Sick?
He gazed at me quizzically. Then he got up and went to a bookshelf and got out a large map. He taped it to a wall and stared. Then he began to move his finger over the map’s surface. I got closer and saw that he was tracing out a path along islands in the Pacific. Samoa, Ellice Islands, Tarawa, Hawai’i. It was as if here were trying to remember all those remote places he’d been when he was a young naval radioman. He turned toward me and said, “I can’t remember.”
A dozen years ago, I saw a map made of coral at a public building in Honolulu that depicted the sites of battles in the Pacific during the Second World War. I looked for all of the islands on which dad told me he’d done duty. We’re in Hawai’i now. Maybe this is why I had the dream.
The dead can’t answer our questions. So why don’t we ask them when they’re alive? My mother was seventeen and my father twenty when they got married, in 1942. Then he left for the duration of the war. What was her life like then? Was she afraid he’d die? Why didn’t she wait to see if he survived and then wed? What exactly did he do on those islands? His naval record doesn’t shed much light; for many months, it just says he was “in the field.” He only told me that he could smell the dead bodies from a plane, that some marines gouged out the gold in the teeth of dead Japanese soldiers, and that he drew a royal flush once while playing poker.
He usually spoke of those days fondly. Why would anyone speak that way about war? He expressed compassion when he talked about Samoans, and he wrote letters to Congress when he learned that the United States was mistreating the people of American Samoa. Why? How did mom and dad cope with reunion after so long a time? Living with his mother-in-law and my mother’s brother in a tiny mine company shack? Did he take me in his arms and smile when I was born? Did they fight? Did she think life would get better and better? Why didn’t he ever take her to those islands that were so important to him, that shaped his future life? Why didn’t I take them both?