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Manoa 13.1 (2001) 152-163

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In My Absence

Lisa Ottiger

I never knew my grandfather, a man who more than fifty years ago went to the Philippines, married my grandmother, volunteered to serve in World War ii, and died. All my life, he was a mystery, someone we talked about with awe, the symbol of a glamorous and tragic past. And he remained a myth to me until I was given a packet containing letters he had written to my grandmother during the war, along with other letters, photos, and documents.

I knew I needed to write his story, for many reasons, but really for only one that's important. This is a love story.

Someone's Grandfather

Across the sea, corpses in the water.
Across the mountain, corpses in the field.

Japanese war song

During World War ii, 140,000 Allied soldiers were imprisoned by the Japanese in Southeast Asia. About one-third of those men died in captivity. One of those men was my grandfather, a casualty of Japanese aggression in the Philippines. Reading the letters given to me by my grandmother, I have come to understand the effect of one man's death on many lives: his wife and child, his parents, his best friend, his uncle, fellow officers. I try to imagine this one loss magnified by the thousands, by the tens of millions of civilians and soldiers who died in the war.

The Package

When I untied the bundle of brown envelopes held together by rusty paper clips and string, I found letters from my grandfather to my grandmother written while he was in various Japanese pow camps in the Philippines, letters from his mother to his wife after his death, and letters from friends refusing to believe that he had died. The paper was brown and brittle, the ink faded to a purplish color. Most of my grandfather's letters were written on precious scraps of paper he had managed to obtain in prison. I had known that these letters existed, but I hadn't known how [End Page 152] many there were. Until her health began its final turn for the worse, my grandmother never showed them to my mother; nor did she talk about her husband. Then she gave the letters to my mother, and my mother gave them to me.

When I was growing up, there was only one picture of my grandfather: in it, he wears a white dinner jacket and is leaning against a bar. The photograph was in my grandmother's living room, which we used once a year, at Christmas, to open presents. The photo was displayed only after the death of Grandma's second husband, in 1972; as a result, my mother saw no pictures of her father when she was growing up. Suddenly I had photos of him on polo fields in Shanghai and Manila; a studio portrait taken at age twenty-four, just before he sailed for Shanghai in 1932; a picture of him as a toddler on a front porch in Columbus, Mississippi--sent to my grandmother by the town's bank manager after my grandfather's death. There were wedding pictures, too, in which my grandmother looked very young and very happy. In one photo, the bride and groom are descending a flight of marble stairs, and my grandmother's face is alive with joy. In a slightly
out-of-focus picture, they are dancing and her laughing face is tucked against his chest.

It was said my grandfather was so handsome that when he entered a room, men and women both turned to look at him. There was a glamour about him. In his photos he appears surprisingly boyish, though in profile he looks older, with curly black hair and large, round eyes, which were either brown or green, depending on who was describing them. He was fairly tall and had a tendency to slouch, to lower his chin and gaze up, wide-eyed, at the camera. He seems unassuming, even nice. Something about him reminds me of my own father, though they look nothing alike. His smile...