To my as-of-yet-unnamed nephew,
We’re so happy to see you! We’ve been waiting a little more than nine months for you, and you’re everything we hoped you would be.
In due time, you’ll find that you’ve got a big family whose members have loved you since before you took your first breath. Eventually, you’ll get to meet them all, and don’t worry, I’ll help remind you what their names are.
But for now, I just wanted to tell you that you’ve got a big, bright future ahead of you, and if I may be so bold, I’m going to go so far as to say you’re bound for great things. Want to know how I can say that with confidence? It’s very simple — it’s a family thing.
It bears mentioning that the reason our family is so special is that we’re fighters. I don’t mean that we engage in combat — I mean that we’ve got exceptional determination passed down by your great-grandmothers to your grandparents, and from them to your mom and me, and from your mom to you.
It also bears mentioning that you’re getting a great deal of strength from you dad’s family, too, but that’s his story to tell. This is ours.
Your Great-Grandma Yee wanted so badly to meet you, but she had to say good bye forever just a few days before you were born. Rest assured, you’ll get to know her plenty because she was the strongest, bravest member of our family there ever was.
She was the ninth of nine children, born in 1923 — almost 100 years before you! Her family, the Lees — Yee is your great-grandfather’s name — were very poor and lived in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. They were so poor that your Great-Grandma Yee’s mother considered selling her to someone else, though we’re all glad she changed her mind.
That’s how hard life was for Great-Grandma Yee, right from the start. She didn’t have the advantages that your grandparents or your mom and I had. But that isn’t to say she didn’t have a few things going for her — as a beautiful teenager, your great-grandmother was chosen to be a background actress in movies, including “The Good Earth,” which came out in 1937.
Life still wasn’t easy. Money that was meant to pay for her college education had to be used to provide for the family, so she went to a trade school to learn to work as a secretary. She worked several different jobs until she married your Great-Grandpa Harold, when she in large part became a stay-at-home mother, though I know she worked as a cook when our family had a Chinese restaurant in El Sereno.
Life didn’t get any easier. Your grandpa’s sister, whom we call Auntie Karen, left the world suddenly early into her adulthood, just before she was to be married, which was to her last day Great-Grandma Yee’s greatest sorrow. Then, Great-Grandpa Harold also passed away, leaving Great-Grandma Yee to keep the family afloat. She went back to work as a secretary and earned increasingly important jobs within a bank, the State of California and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. She even got another job after she retired because she had so much energy left.
She worked hard and never gave up, setting that very same example for your Grandpa and his brother so they could be successful. And once your mom and I were born in the mid-late 1980s, she became the best grandmother anyone could’ve asked for. We stayed at her house on the weekend, and we cooked, baked, played, and had the best time. She loved us more than anything, and we felt it every moment we were with her.
When she left us, she was 96 years old. That’s a lot longer than most other people are on this earth. She fought to stay as long as she could, and even though she wanted to meet you, her body had reached its limit. What we can do now, though, is remember her courage and determination to give her family the best life possible as well as all the love she had for all of us.
With any luck, you’ll get to meet Great-Grandma Nakashima before she leaves us, as well. Just like Great-Grandma Yee, she’s 96 years old. She was always quieter, less expressive than Great-Grandma Yee, but she was the strong, silent type who taught us about being present in each others’ lives and about making smart decisions that benefit us down the line.
While Great-Grandma Nakashima didn’t grow up in abject poverty like Great-Grandma Yee did, she experienced an incredible injustice that shaped her entire life. After the United States joined World War II in 1941, this country turned on its Japanese American citizens out of fear that they were spies for Japan, which was an enemy of ours in the war.
As a result, she and many other Japanese Americans were taken into military custody and sent to what amounted to prison camps. For the most part, all they could do was join the Army or simply live there in relative squalor until the war was over, which is what Great-Grandma Nakashima and her family did.
Families were crammed into wall-less military barracks — they made their own partitions so they could have some privacy — and lived their days inside barbed wire fences and watched by armed guards. Despite all this, Great-Grandma Nakashima came out of this imprisonment a young woman ready to take the world on.
She and Great-Grandpa Nakashima married, and she became a stay-at-home mother until Grandma and her brother were old enough to take care of themselves. She then enrolled in college and studied to be an elementary school teacher. She went even farther and earned a graduate degree in education to help her get the most out of her career.
Your mom and I spent a great deal of time with Great-Grandma Nakashima because she retired before we were born. She picked us up from school most days and spent time with us until Grandma got home from work. She didn’t play with us like Great-Grandma Yee did nor did she do much cooking, but she always made sure we were having fun and well fed. Your two great-grandmas were different but showed us the same love and care.
One thing that was important to her was that her grandkids all receive the best educations possible so we would be well set for success as we grew up. She and Great-Grandpa Nakashima set up several investments for us to help fund our college educations once we were old enough. Your mom, our cousins and I were so lucky to have grandparents with so much foresight.
Great-Grandma Nakashima showed us that staying informed and educated would enable us to make decisions that would help our family down the line. I hope our decisions today make your life even better later on, my dear nephew.
You grandpa is Great-Grandma Yee’s son, and he’s got the same fighter’s spirit she did. He wasn’t very interested in academics and, after high school, he became a mailman. He put his body on the line to climb steep hills in Los Angeles delivering people’s mail, which they heavily depended on back then.
One trait about Grandpa is that he feels a need to take action when he sees wrongdoing. One time, while delivering mail, he saw someone unfamiliar come out of a house he delivered mail to pushing a trash can with a television sticking out of it. He immediately recognized this man was a robber and called the police. Instead of simply leaving it to them, he continued following this man, going so far as to follow the man onto a bus in order to keep the police notified of his position. Once the bus stopped, the police were waiting for the robber, and Grandpa’s customer got their TV back. He was awarded a commendation from the City of Los Angeles for his bravery.
Despite his heroism then, Grandpa’s greatest fight came decades later when he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer. Other people who receive news like this might fear their lives were over, but not your grandfather. He’s been entirely focused on what can be done to stave off the cancer as scientists work to find a cure, and he even reset his entire immune system when he had a stem cell transplant a few years ago. He took it in stride and is basically back to his usual self, which is a testament to how strong he is. You’ve got that same strength in you, buddy. I know it.
Your grandma is very much like her mother, Great-Grandma Nakashima, strong yet quiet. She’s not the most expressive person, but when anyone needs anything done, they turn to her. She may not want to be a leader most of the time, but people defer to her because she’s always willing to help and figures out how to get things done.
She spent close to 30 years teaching elementary school, which is a monumental accomplishment considering how unruly some children — not you — can be. She’s patient and kind most of the time, but she can be tough when it’s warranted. She’s never unfair. These qualities made her the teacher all the parents wanted their children to have.
Over the years, she did so many thankless tasks to raise your mom and me without complaint — she drove us to school every morning, came back from work and made dinner most afternoons, took us to club meetings, baseball practice for me, Chinese dance for your mom, and we not once thanked her. We didn’t know then that we should have. She took these responsibilities upon herself and made sure we were educated, balanced kids — if a little spoiled.
And even when your mom and I had grown up and she was able to retire, she almost immediately found that she had breast cancer. Thankfully, the doctors caught it early, and she received surgery to remove the cancer entirely. It was a difficult few months, and all her hair fell out, but just like your grandpa, she never gave up, and now she has bounced back entirely and remains the glue that keeps our family together.
I’m three years older than your mom, but for a good portion of our lives, she has been the more mature of us. She complains less, works harder, and as a result she reached many heights in her career before I did in mine. It’s been a joy to see her rise quickly through the ranks from a pastry cook who took orders to become a sous chef who oversees hundreds of cooks.
I still remember when she graduated from culinary school at age 19. I was 22 and had very little direction in my life. Meanwhile, my little sister was ready to dive into her career. I was a little jealous, but I was mostly proud of her accomplishments and the drive it took to reach them.
Her most recent show of toughness was in giving birth to you, little man. She was at the hospital for more than 30 hours while waiting to give birth to you, pushing in hopes of giving birth to you the traditional way. But you were a big boy, and surgery was required to get you out and into our lives. Having a baby takes a great deal of effort, and while your mom may not be very big, she was strong the whole way through. Just a few hours after her surgery, she was already awake and caring for you.
She shows that toughness passed down from out great-grandmas all the time, so you’re bound to pick it up pretty quickly. But make sure you don’t eat like she does. Your dad will make sure you enjoy a wide variety of foods. If you eat like her, all you’ll end up eating is chicken nuggets and potato chips.
I don’t think anyone would say I’m among the toughest people in this family, but I’ve done my best to take in all of the lessons from everyone else around me.
I was aimless in life for a long time until I found journalism, and at that point I finally found a career worth fighting for. You probably don’t know too much about the news at this point, but it’s a difficult line of work, and for the most part someone is always going to be unhappy with the news you’ve written.
Nonetheless, it’s an important job, helping inform people about what’s going on in their communities and about what their elected leaders are deciding on their behalf. I spent six years working as a newspaper reporter, and in that time, I took pride in asking tough questions and making sure leaders were being held accountable for their actions, no matter if they were positive or negative.
Coincidentally, the day you were born was my last day as a newspaper reporter. Journalism is a tough career path, so I began looking outside of it at other careers that would be equally fulfilling. I’m so glad I found the right one — I’ll be working for the agency that oversees homeless services across Los Angeles County.
This job won’t be any easier than my previous one — homelessness is a controversial issue, and so I’ll likely face a lot of tough questions, but it’s a worthwhile cause to fight for. Homelessness isn’t a simple issue — no two people are homeless for the same reason, and at the heart of the matter is a humanitarian crisis, a crisis of compassion. Those who no longer have a home aren’t all bad guys whose lives can be written off — not that any human life should ever be written off. They’re people, people who need help for one reason or another, and I’m fighting to help more people understand that. I did that in my work as a reporter, and I’ll be doing it full time in a few weeks.
If you’re going to take anything away from that, it’s that you can be strong for yourself and for others who are in need of help. Your heart will be full of love, and you don’t have to just reserve that love for your family. Some people don’t get enough love, and you can offer them some kindness to make their lives better.
We held off on your first day, but pretty soon you’re going to start hearing some of these stories, nephew of mine. We’ve got too many of them not to share. You might not remember the ones we tell these days, but we’re not going to stop telling them, so you’ll catch on eventually. We’re so happy to have you in our family, and we’re going to make sure you know how we came to be the strong, smart, determined people we are today, just like you will be some day.
This probably seems like a lot to learn, and plus, this was just about your mom’s side of the family. But it’ll be okay. We all love you so much, and we’ll be with you as you learn and discover more about this big old world.
With all my love,