As little kids my sister and I enjoyed endlessly harassing my grandfather. We’d hide his car keys, pickpocket his wallet, and steal his chocolate chip cookies whenever he wasn’t looking. Our favorite activity was marching around his pink and green living room singing military songs. We were always trying to get him to tell us stories about his service in the Marines, but he never would. He’d just sit there in his overstuffed chair, in his mismatched clothes, and laugh at us.
Like so many men of his time, my grandfather was a military man. Family lore has it that he dropped out of school at age eleven, after his mother died, and that he ran away from home constantly. He was rejected from the Marine Corps and the Army numerous times for being underage. Once he was finally old enough, he enlisted in the Marines. He served as a Drill Instructor prior to World War II, and later fought in the South Pacific. He met and married my grandmother on leave, between stints in the South Pacific.
All we ever knew about his time in the Marines was that he came home with a bunch of medals. Prying war stories out of him was impossible. He’d change the subject or make up a ridiculous tale about flying around on unicorns while shooting at the enemy. If asked, he’d always insist that his stories were true. One of his favorite whoppers was that he’d tried to jump out a window on his wedding night. My grandmother always refuted this, and no one really knows which story is true.
It was at the funeral for another relative that he finally told me a story about life during the war. Death has a way of making people nostalgic; people become reflective when they think about endings.
I don’t remember how the conversation began, but it was just between my grandfather and I. He opened his wallet, the same well-worn wallet I had pick-pocketed so many times as a child, and pulled out a piece of newspaper. It was dark yellow with age. He unfolded it, and showed me the article, which was titled, “The Most Beautiful Girls of Guam”. I skimmed it quickly, and my grandfather pointed to one name.
“I knew her,” he said simply. Her name was Alejandrina, and according to the article she was local and a bank teller.
I remember standing there in my black funeral dress, with its white satin cuffs, looking at the yellow newspaper clipping, written during the mid 1940’s. I had no idea what to say. I was only sixteen, but even I knew the time frame wasn’t quite right. I handed him back the article quietly. I finally had a story, but I wasn’t brave enough to ask a single question.
Four months later, he died of an embolism. Like so many things, the article vanished. I never asked my grandmother what happened to it, and everyone else claims they never saw it, the newspaper clipping that he had saved for fifty years.
I wore the same black dress to his funeral that I wore the day I read the story about the most beautiful girls of Guam. It’s a lovely dress, but I never wear it. It reeks of funerals and unanswered questions. It hangs in the back of my closet, just out of sight, an imperfect memory.