My family history is confusing. My father’s side is most prominent to me, probably because I feel more in touch with it, due to a shared religion, a shared name, and my grandfather actually living in Arizona. My grandpa, Harold David Bander, was born into an Ashkenazi Jewish family who came from either Latvia or the Ukraine. We think one came from a village called Durb’yan. In the 1910s, my great-grandparents, Joseph Lewis Bander and his wife, Bertha Galaid, came over from Europe to Providence, Rhode Island, where my great-grandfather had a tailor shop. But he died when my grandfather was nineteen, and his mother wanted him to leave Brown University to take care her.
My mother’s side is a lot different. On her side, my great-great-grandmother was Jeanette Florence Sparks or “Gonna” as she was called. That’s the only name I hear her referred to as. But she and her husband, my great-great-grandfather James Robert Pitts (for whom my grandfather was named after) had my great-grandfather, Harold Lester Pitts. He married my great-grandmother Evelyn Margaret Hammond, who came from Germany. My grandfather moved away from Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin, went into the Navy at age seventeen, and eventually spent four years stationed in Japan. There, he met my grandmother and they got married, despite my grandmother’s parents disapproving. They had my mother and lived in Japan until she was two, when my grandfather was then moved to Florida. But before that, my grandmother had lived in Japan her entire life, including during World War II.
My grandmother, who I call Baa-Chan (That’s Japanese for grandmother; Gee-Chan is Japanese for grandfather.), was born Momoe Kikuya, but now goes by Kay Pitts. She lived near Nagasaki, which was bombed and made it nearly impossible for citizens to live. At only seven years old in 1945, she had to hide in a tiny cave with about 400 other people. When I asked my grandmother of this, she directed me to an article her local North Carolina newspaper, The Washington Daily News, did on her in 1999. “People wanted to get in, but there was not enough room. They tried to tear in. Some were hitting each other. The people were so ugly to each other, but they only wanted to survive,” she told them.
Until doing this research, I had no idea exactly how diverse I was. I knew I had strong roots to World War II, but I figured it was merely because I was Jewish. I didn’t realize that I knew and loved someone who actually experienced it. Also, how many people can say they’re Eastern European, German, English, Japanese, and who knows what else? In fact, when I was little, my teacher called my parents and told them I’d been lying, telling everyone I was Japanese. I wasn’t lying.
The treasure’s never been hidden from me; I just had to finally dig at the X. As a child, I was given the nickname “Bulujew,” which is Buddhist, Lutheran, and Jewish combined into one. (Baa-Chan is Buddhist, Gee-Chan is Lutheran, and my dad–and previously, my grandpa–is Jewish.) My parents have always been respectful of whatever religion is out there. As soon as I’m eighteen, I get to choose whatever religion I want and they’ve already said they’ll support me 100%. Sure, I’ll probably choose Judaism because that’s the way I’ve been raised, but it’s nice to know I’ll have options in the future–some of which I actually know I’m culturally and historically connected to.