Past and Present

There are a series of photographs of my grandfather in Korea, standing under camouflage netting on what must have been a hot and sunny day, from the dramatic shadows cast on his uniform and the objects around him. He’s smiling in many of them, a crooked smile that looks a lot like mine, and looking somewhere off into the jungle. If you look closely, you can see that the shape of his hands is like my father’s, my own, we have similar bone structure, all of us short and solid people. We have strong genetics, evidently.

In one, he’s looking whoever was holding the camera right in the eye, lips caught in motion.

He looks somewhat uneasy, caught in an internal conflict.

I wonder about precisely when and where the pictures were taken; there’s no information about them although the setting is very obviously Korea. His uniform has no clear markings or indicators on it, but if it was Korea, it means he was working in intelligence by then, not in the regular military. The boxes around him are as oblique as his gaze, revealing nothing to the viewer. Suffice it to say that he was probably not on a casual holiday.

We look a lot alike, my grandfather and I, but his gaze in these images is more distant than mine.

He spent his whole life working for the man and his last words to me were ‘don’t let the man get you down.’ I have trouble reconciling what I know of my grandfather with itself, sometimes. What I know is so little that I put it together in pieces; my father doesn’t talk about his parents much, and I know he had an uneasy relationship with both of them, but particularly his father. While his face may be obscure in those images, it speaks of a man with a capacity for hardness, and sometimes cruelty, a man with little compassion and patience.

But my father also has a strange sort of nostalgia for his father that crops up at the strangest moments, and it’s why I always think of him on 7 December, Pearl Harbour Day. He always cut his hair on this day, one of the two dates a year he did it, and my father always does the same, a ritual that has become almost unconscious at this point. My hair looks more like theirs now than ever before now that I keep it cropped short, making me appear even more like a younger and rather breastier version of the man in those pictures.

My grandfather was not a particularly striking man, and I’ve inherited much of his looks; people sometimes say I look interesting or handsome, but really, like him, I tend to look more unassuming and quiet, unless I make myself stand out. When I want to, I can blend seamlessly into a crowd, disappearing in a sea of humanity without a trace, and I know he had the same trait. The ability to move invisibly through the world, watching without touching or interacting, gathering and collating information.

I will probably never know very much about him, which creates a sense of unease as I grow older and turn to thoughts of where I come from, and who I came from. I used to not worry so much about these things, but it turns out that I am even more like my father than I thought; with each passing year I grow more invested in the past, more nostalgic for half-memories, more determined to mull over events long dead and gone. And the people around me with the information I seek are all fading away and dying, creating a sense of urgency that is hard to shake; now or never, but are you ready for what you might find out?

I wonder whether my grandfather preferred milk or dark chocolate, how he took his coffee, whether he ate ketchup with his fries. I wonder about these mundane details because I wonder if they’re the same across generations, I wonder if some of my strange mannerisms are as much genetics as environment, if some of my strange ways of movement or the stubborn twist of my hair comes from him. I wonder, too, how much of my mind comes from him, how much of who I am is shaped by who he was, this man I’ll never know beyond anything but a scattering of photographs in a box and some old mementos from years of international travel.

I wonder what these mementos say about him, what it means that the one thing from Japan that survived, for example, is a little wooden box with a crude sculpture of a man and woman fucking on it, wearing quilted silk robes that you can take off, should you feel so inclined. When you open or close the box, the little man pumps in and out, determined, worn smooth and glossy by time. Caught forever in mid-coitus, both partners look a little tired after all these years.

I don’t know what answers I’m looking for in the past or how I’ll know them when I’ve found them, but I feel like the past still has something to say to me, and I feel that more than usual on Pearl Harbour Day, when my hand strays up to my own hairline and I wonder if perhaps I shouldn’t get just a little trim.