“April 14, 1945. Three times during the war, I was wounded. This one right here, in my arm!” My son’s German Great-Grandfather raised his sleeve to reveal a strong upper-arm, and pointed to where a bullet had pierced through, leaving a deep scar. “Just a few centimeters to the left and it would have pierced my heart.”
“He remembers every date,” my husband whispered, “Incredible.”
This last week, we drove to visit him in a small village an hour away, in a house that is about 100 years old. Generations of families have lived there and raised their children in that home, including the great-grandfather’s wife, Erika.
“I was 25 when we married, and she was pregnant. Is such a thing so bad?” He shook his head sadly, remembering the love of his life, who had stayed by his side all those years, and who had finally passed away the year after our son Karsten was born. Our Grandfather now refused to leave the old house, although he lived alone, and it was harder to tend to the garden than in years past.
Looking around, one could see why his heart was buried here, and wanted to remain. The old house held so many memories, and happy events that told of a time that was. My husband took me around the garden to show me where things once stood, where happy people had picnicked, and played, and lived a simple life to the full. There were the bars of a playground swing that was built for him 30 years ago, and an old shed where the family would have grilled barbecues, when the great-grandmother would cook—and she could always cook up a storm.
“There are two things you learn to do in this house,” my husband had told me during my first visit here in 2009, “Eat. And drink.”
And so it was.
Mornings, noons, and nights, the family gathered around the old dining table, and a feast was spread. I remember how Oma (Grandmother) would set the table and cutlery, and special ceramics, and watch me with eager eyes to make sure that I ate well. “Pass her more butter!” she would say, and I always felt a little guilty for trying to watch my pre-wedding weight.
And Opa (Grandfather) would make sure that I drank. Upon refilling my own wine glass, he would scold my husband. “Be a good gentleman and water your wife!” I always laughed at this, because in German, eingiesen is a way of saying to “fill one’s glass up”. But one can also say, “die Blumen giesen”, when gardening (“water the flowers”).
Those who had known, and lived through hard times, now appreciated the peace. They ate and drank with such relish. They stored the photographs we had mailed them on a special shelf just for memories like these; they knew the value of time, the significance of a life.
Come evenings, the whisky bottle would already be half emptied, and it was during such an night last week, that Opa told us of all his memories. He described them as if they had happened yesterday, his great hands—burly workerman’s hands—showing how it was done.
He had served in the war as a young man, and then became a developer of large-scale coal mining during the Industrial Revolution. He brought us down to the cellar, where all his precious memorabilia and medals were kept.
“Nikki,” he sighed. “One needs a whole day or a few days to tell all of the stories from here, and to explain everything. It’s like a little museum.”
In this little museum hung a few framed pictures of his past—he had been awarded so many times, with such high honors and recognition. There were also displayed miners’ tools—the old–school kind— plus antique lamps, rare precious stones and minerals from Freiburg on display in a little glass case. He sat on the long bench and explained everything in great detail to us.
“Let’s stay just one more day,” we decided, reluctant to leave Opa, who so enjoyed these rare times with his great-grandchild, who could now converse with him.
Every day, he visited the village cemetery nearby, laid new flowers for his wife, raked the path and tended her grave. His name was already embossed on the tombstone, just under hers. Even death would not part this pair of lovers.
That afternoon, I walked to the cornerstone to buy a new bouquet for our visit to the Friedhof (cemetery), and returned with a bundle of deep red roses. As one must always be cautious of with another culture, I wasn’t sure if that particular flower was traditional or offensive. I asked my husband if it was okay, and he in turn asked his grandfather.
“Of course, of course!” Opa smiled, before revealing: “It will be our Golden Anniversary on Saturday.”
I crawled into bed late that night, to join my sleeping son, and my husband stayed an hour longer to listen to Opa’s stories.
“I bet he’s got ten more years of life in him,” he said, when he finally returned to bed, and I was nearly asleep. “I’ve never heard all those stories before. He always said he would save it for another time.”
If Opa does complete another decade, then nearly a century will have passed before his eyes. He would have seen things we can’t even imagine, would have lived a long, and full, and love-filled life. And even if he doesn’t get that many more years, his gold mine of a life would have already been complete. Through two world wars, through love and loss, through health and sickness, through pain and joy, he had made his mark. He had kept his memories.
It’s Saturday today, and I try to picture myself growing old in that way: still strong, quick in mind, determined to work well.
But I can’t.
Life isn’t something you can fast forward and predict how it’s going to be. Life is simply lived minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day—the best we can.
And if the years permit to roll on and bring us volumes of history to share with our next generations, and the generations afterwards, I only hope that those stories will always be worth telling.