My grandma doesn’t remember immigrating from Sicily. The youngest of nine kids (and the only girl), she was just a baby when her parents brought her to the U.S. Rumor had it that her mother, an orphan, was the illegitimate daughter of a priest and a nun. In the US, the immigration officer did not like their Italian names and changed her father, Vincenzo, into James. My grandmother Giovanna became June.
They settled in an Italian neighborhood in Saint Louis where June’s father worked as an ice delivery man. In the days before the electric freezer, he would ride around town each morning delivering chunks of ice.
As a teenager June befriended a girl named Lois. One night Lois hosted a slumber party and all the girls slept on the floor in the living room. In the middle of the night, someone tripped over June, she yelled, and chaos ensued. The tripper turned out to be Lois’ older brother Charlie, who was returning from the army in the middle of the night. After the awkward first meeting, Charlie and June flirted, then dated, then got married.
Meanwhile in another part of Saint Louis, another newly-married couple was preparing to journey across the world. Margaret was a stunning curvaceous blonde who wore large-brimmed hats and garnered the jealousy and admiration of every other woman on the street. Her husband Arbie was a tall, lean Texan donning a pipe and a Bible. He had just graduated from seminary and received word that they were being sent to Northern Japan.
Arbie’s family line can be traced back to the Wendish migration to Texas. In fact, our family line from this side of the family is well-documented in the archives of the Wendish museum in Serbin, Texas. The Wends were a Germanic tribe hailing from the Spreewald, who left Europe fr religious liberty in three ships. Two of the ships reached the gulf shores of Texas, but one went severely off course and ended up in Australia. Many Texans today can track their lineage back to the Wends. There weren’t many to begin with, but they proliferated rapidly.
Each of these couples had six children, attended church often, and lived in humble conditions, but the similarities stop there.
June and Charlie both came from large families, so their children had mounds of cousins to play with. They spent weekends camping in a rickety shack along the Burbas River, where the kids went fishing and exploring – a childhood straight out of a Mark Twain novel.
Margaret and Arbie left their families behind in America and lived a very Japanese life. Unlike military families living abroad, they submerged themselves in local culture. The children spoke Japanese more fluently than English and had Japanese mannerisms. Despite this, they never fit in at school. Even now in Northern Japan it is rare to see a Caucasian wandering the streets. In the 1960s this was even less common, and so the children attracted stares and questions everywhere they went. Little Stephanie, a red-head, had it the hardest. She had a zany, completely un-Asian sense of adventure. She would later become my mother.
The family did not own a car, so in the mornings the children would hop onto the back of the milk man’s carriage and ride with hiim to school. During the summers they lived and worked on a dairy farm in northwest Hokkaido. The family moved several times to different parts of Japan, establishing churches in many cities. But most of my mother’s childhood memories are from Hokkaido.
Arbie and Margaret unofficially adopted a Japanese boy named Toshi. He came from an impoverished fishing village where he had very little opportunity for education. Arbie offered him room and board while he went to school in the city. Years later I would travel to Tokyo to visit this uncle I had never even known existed.
Japanese girls commonly have crushes on Korean boys, and my mom was no exception. At her international boarding school she met a South Korean boy who happened to be the son of a well-known politician. She traveled to Korea with him to meet his parents in their elaborate mansion. However the fairy tale went sour and she was awoken in the middle of the night and told she had to leave immediately. A coup was rising up against President Park and she was in grave danger. Stephanie escaped back to Japan and the president was assassinated. I don’t know what happened to her boyfriend.
Across the world, June and Charlie’s children were enjoying the American 1970’s in full-fledged hippie style. Two of the brothers started a juggling troupe. Complete with curly affros and mustaches, they toured the country in a VW bus. The older of the two would become my father, Jim.
While he became a well-known juggler and then eventually put himself through engineering school, Stephanie explored Europe, got a degree in art, and moved to Washington, D.C. She knew nothing about American culture or how to find a job. She chose the coolest-looking building in D.C., walked in and asked if she could work there. Intrigued by her tenacity (and probably also her long red hair), she was given a job at the country’s most famous art museum.
Arbie dedicated his life to his job, but unfortunately didn’t have the same dedication for his marriage. Margaret returned to Saint Louis alone, after 30 years of being a wife and mother, with no job history and a young child depending on her. Stephanie left D.C. for Saint Louis to help them.
And this is where the stories converge… in a Saint Louis night club called the Flamingo. Jim asked Stephanie on a date and she said no. He asked her again and she said no again (she already had a boyfriend, a singer touring out of town with his rock band. Before he left he had joked with Stephanie that she better not get married while he was gone.) Jim wouldn’t give up and Stephanie finally caved in. Within 4 weeks they were engaged.
This is a play with many acts and many characters, and I probably never heard most of the details. I have a lot to live up to to make sure my life is as interesting as those that came before me. I hope that someday my kids are telling this story, and that my part is worth adding onto the end.