My mother's father was a pacifist, opposed to violence.
But somehow, during World War II, he ended up in the US Navy. Was it the spirit of the time that moved him? Patriotism? Or perhaps a need to prove himself, having married my grandmother, whose father was a prominent navy captain who had been decorated—and run Guam—during World War I?
My great aunt might know, but the rest of my family can only hazard guesses. After all, none of us were born yet.
My grandfather died in 2000—right after I returned from my first trip to Southeast Asia, and my mother, aunt, uncle and I conceived and planned MariesWorldTour that same night. In the months after, my grandmother opened up and told stories about my grandpa all the time. Stories we'd never heard before, and one we'd heard often enough.
During World War II, my grandfather had enlisted and been sent overseas. He couldn't say where. He had a desk job, suitable for someone with his University of Chicago degree.
He'd ended up in Cairo. And coincidentally, he'd run into my great grandfather there, who had also been confidentially sent to Cairo.
I have no visual in my head of where they would have lived, or of what naval offices would have looked like then. My only frame of reference is the British officers club in the movie Lawrence of Arabia.
I'd walk among the crumbling mansions of Zamalek last year, looking up at the sand-stained walls, and wonder. Did they meet there? In that art deco lobby? Or in the square square building with the roll-down awnings over each window? Or maybe in one of the grand Victorians, now mostly embassies?
Parts of Zamalek are shaded. Some of it even has unbroken sidewalks. "You can always walk on sidewalks by embassies," the real estate agent had told me early on. "The embassies maintain their sidewalks."
But maybe Zamalek had no embassies back then, no officers' headquarters. Maybe I was in the totally wrong part of town, and the only time the meeting of my ancestors occurred in Zamalek was now, in my imagination, easily stirred by the once-grand, decaying architecture around me.