Personal histories

History is a funny thing. We have our individual history, the things that make us ourselves, but we also have our collective cultural history, the things that make us us, as a collective entity — and collective history is not as simple as a recitation of names and dates, which tells only one history, contributes only to a dominant cultural narrative. History is a memory, a thought, an experience, a series of turning points. History for people in the United States is the moment Columbus showed up to assert his right to colonise land that didn’t belong to him, but it was also the moment the first slave was chained in the hold of a ship. Each of us is a combination of collective history and personal memories and, at times, the absence of history. The history that has been erased, hidden, set aside is as much a part of it as the history we remember.

7 December is a day that for me bridges these divides. My collective cultural history reminds me that it is the day Japan bombed Pearl Harbour, forcing the United States out of an isolationist policy and into a war it very much did not want to join. In my family history, it was the moment that set some of my predecessors on career paths into the Navy, laying the groundwork for a family tradition. In my personal history, it is also a day I closely associate with my grandfather — a man I hardly knew, a man I have probably thought about more after his death than I ever did when he was alive, because I met him only a handful of times.

Most of what I know about my grandfather, I know from my father. The two men did not have the easiest of relationships, and while they weren’t fully estranged, they didn’t think much of each other, and they didn’t see much of each other either. I don’t say this as an indictment — I don’t know about the series of events that led to their separation, I don’t know if my grandfather was a good or bad or just average sort of person, if he and my father didn’t get along for any host of reasons that people don’t get along. I’ve never asked. I always assumed he’d tell me if it was relevant.

In some ways, my father was the definite black sheep of his family, the defiant and unpredictable, the one least interested not just in following the family tradition of military service, but in following any traditions at all. He was of the era that prided itself on an oddly conformist approach to social rebellion, and I cannot imagine that it went over well with my grandfather. In many ways, my father was closer to his own grandfather, who lived and died on the reservation, who taught my father useful sorts of things and accepted him for who he was, rather than for who everyone wanted him to be.

My grandfather wasn’t at Pearl Harbor — his friends may have been, though I have no way of knowing. By then he was working in intelligence, one of the people who was supposed to be looking out for things like Pearl Harbor, but he was focused on Europe, not Asia, and couldn’t have told you much about Japan until after the war, when he was sent there with the Occupation. People sometimes seem to forget that the United States occupied Japan after the war, though when I was there last year, I could see the legacies of it everywhere, sometimes in subtle ways — the shape of electric plugs, the plethora of bakeries that sprung up to service GIs with sweet teeth, little flashes here and there, reminders of how the United States made its mark. As a hulking blonde presence, I thought about how my grandfather, who looked much like me, might have walked the same streets, ridden along some of the same rail lines, looking equally stiff and out of place. My father gave me the address of their old house in Tokyo, but I couldn’t find it, swallowed up by time and progress.

Pearl Harbor enters our strange family history thus not because of its cultural impact or any great personal connection, but because my grandfather was a very orderly, organised man, and he liked everything just so, and he had a system for everything, and that system included getting his hair cut on Memorial Day and Pearl Harbor Day, two landmarks that made it impossible to forget. Every year, for his entire adult life, he went to the barber on Memorial Day and Labour Day, and for years, my father did the same, almost reflexively. A private homage to his father? Force of habit? A desire to root himself in his personal history? A convenient landmark for remembering? He could have done it at the start of the semester, when it might make more sense, when he always bought a new pair of ‘professor pants,’ but instead, it was Memorial Day and Pearl Harbor Day, without fail, even without a conscious plan.

I can’t quite pinpoint the moment he stopped doing it. First his barber moved, and then he closed, and then Pearl Harbor fell (again) on a Sunday, and his new barber was closed, and that series of stumbles led him to give up the practice altogether. I certainly never cut my hair on 7 December, at least, not consciously, and it’s a strange little family tradition that took 60-odd years to die, but it makes me think about all the other strange traditions we perpetuate, sometimes without even realising it. How many of the things we do because they are the way things have always been done.

Image: Doug Pieper, Flickr