By Mahealani Smith
Special to the IE
My mother took a photograph on Father’s Day, 1987. Granted, she took a lot of photographs to document my earliest years, but this one was notable for the reaction it received when she showed it to people who knew my grandfather.
“Is that Charles? On the floor?”
The answer, shockingly, was “yes.” My grandfather was lying on his side in his living room, playing with a six month old me. The smile on his face is the same one I was fortunate enough to see for almost 30 years, every time he mentioned me or glanced my way. It’s the same smile that he wears in a photo of us that was featured in The Seattle Times in 1988, when he was appointed to the State Supreme Court. Every time my grandfather would introduce me, it was with a proud declaration that I was his “first-born grandchild.” Even at a young age, I felt an obligation to live up to that pride, even before I began to realize the larger significance my Grandpa Charles held outside of our family.
I understood that my grandpa had an important job as a Justice on the State Supreme Court. I was vaguely aware of the fact that he must have had a long and illustrious career to get there. But really what I understood was that sometimes as a baby, my photo had been in the paper with him, and that sometimes I would put on nice clothes and go to a dinner with a lot of adults who were talking about him. I learned to be polite and courteous at these events, to keep my elbows off the table and my napkin in my lap, and to always speak clearly.
I can remember being about seven, sitting around the table in my grandparents’ dining room for a family holiday. I was excitedly telling my grandpa about something, when he insisted that I “e-nun-ci-ate,” as he was having a hard time understanding me. When I responded with a blank stare, he asked if I knew what that word meant; when I answered that I did not, he explained—not just the dictionary definition, but the larger importance of it. I think of it fondly now as his lawyer-speak, his methodically timed speech with crisp, clear consonants. As a child, it was what I tried to emulate from that point on whenever I spoke with him. As an adult, I now realize what a crucial skill it is to get people to not only listen when you’re speaking, but to understand it.
When I was in middle school, we went to a dinner in his honor hosted by the JACL. I remember being confused that it was my non-Japanese grandfather who was being celebrated, because I had no idea yet of the history of his involvement with the community. I had no idea then that his work had helped secure redress for incarcerated Japanese Americans, including my mother’s parents and grandparents. Now, I smile, knowing that his legacy has been preserved through Densho and has been included at The Wing. It reminds me that the love my grandfather held for me was only one facet of his great compassion and drive to make the world better for everyone, especially people of color.
I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate that I had so many years with my grandfather, and so many of them as an adult. Even as a teenager, after my grandfather had retired from the court, I still didn’t really understand exactly what his legacy meant. By that age, I knew he was the first—and at that point, only—person of color to sit on the court, and I could appreciate the enormity of that. I knew that he had taught at the University of Washington School of Law, which was neat, and that there was now a scholarship in his name, which was somehow cooler to me than his status as a professor emeritus. I knew that he had worked for Robert F. Kennedy, although I didn’t quite grasp all the details. Mostly, it was youthful bragging rights—my grandpa is cooler than yours.
In October 2005, the Hispanic National Bar Association held its annual gala at an upscale hotel in DC. I had just started my freshman year of college there, so my grandfather swung by my residence hall to pick me up as his date for the night. As we mingled before the dinner, a man in a white tuxedo jacket came up to greet my grandfather. We chatted for a few minutes, and he graciously described what an icon and mentor my grandpa was, and how happy he was to see him. Then he excused himself, and my grandfather leaned in to inform me that he was being sworn in as the association’s new president.
That night was the first time that I recognized the sphere of influence around my grandfather was much, much larger than I had realized. It was the just the beginning. When I spent a year studying American Sign Language, he told me all about how he had helped write legislation to bring interpreters into the courtroom, after he had needed an ASL interpreter for a Deaf witness. He had such a genuine love for the Deaf community, and we signed together through the manual alphabet, which he still remembered from when he was a child.
Two years ago, a portrait of my grandfather by Alfredo Arreguin was hung at the University of Washington School of Law. It was one of the last times I saw him speak in public, and I remember being in awe of how many people came out to recognize him. It wasn’t just legal professionals of my parents’ generation who admired him, it was law students my age as well. A friend of mine in her first year of law school texted me one day to tell me that they’d been discussing my grandfather in her class. I couldn’t help but smile; it’s a rare and special thing to have that kind of a legacy in your family.
I have found myself returning frequently to a poem called “Epitaph” by Merritt Malloy that I came across by chance just a few days after my grandfather’s passing. They were the very words that I needed to hear, because it struck me as a message he would try to pass on: “…when all that’s left of me is love, give me away.”
All I have now are photos of my grandpa’s smile, memories of visiting on the weekends to find him in his Superman t-shirt and zori, or of eating gumbo seasoned with Tabasco. These are the gifts his gave me, and the pride in his eyes when I assured him I was saving money he had provided for the future. These are all the moments I hold in my heart. I cannot hug him or kiss him again, but I can give that love we shared to the communities he cherished.
Lani Smith is the oldest of Justice Smith’s six grandchildren. She is a photographer on the side, and is currently pursuing her Masters in Information Management at UW.