I believe in the importance of telling stories. My grandfather who lives in Germany and whom I call Opa is my best source of the stories. His tales can last hours but they are always intriguing. He tells my sister, brother and me all about my mother when she was our age, his own experiences and my other grandfather whom I can’t remember. One story we heard this last winter was about my other grandpa, Gordon.
It was April in 1994 and my mother was expecting to give birth to my soon-to-be-sister. So, Grandpa Gordie and Opa Herrman decided to build a swing set for us along with a compost bin in our backyard. They had to buy all of the wood, make sure to cut the pieces correctly and carry all of the concrete blocks to the back corner. Before Opa knew Grandpa had started, the concrete blocks were already stacked where the compost bin was going to be. A little amused, Opa then asked my dad (Grandpa’s son) whether Grandpa always worked so determinedly, and Dad had to chuckle, “Oh yes, it’s impossible for him to work slowly.”
Sometimes the stories aren’t always as light-hearted as the swing set one. Two years ago, while we were reading Night by Elie Wiesel, I asked my mother what she knew about how Opa and Oma were affected by World War II. I had never heard them talk about those times, so I wasn’t prepared to hear what she said: When Opa was 11, the warfront approached their town. The entire area was evacuated and the family had to move to the country. Bombing and fighting left the town in ruins, so the curious young boy, Opa, rode his bicycle back to see the damage for himself. While walking through the streets, he was approached by some Russian women who were looting around. There had been a labor camp in the area, and because of the bombing, the workers were free to roam the town. The women recognized Opa as a German and called out to him, wanting to get revenge for the abuse they had suffered. After hearing their threats, Opa quickly pedaled away. On his way back, he had to pass through a wide open field. When he was halfway through it, an army plane spotted him and dove, planning to attack him. Terrified, Opa got off his bike, stood on the ground, held out his arms and looked directly up at the plane. Only then did they recognize him as a young civilian and flew off. Needless to say, he rode home as fast as he could.
Our last conversation before we left for the airport made me realize the importance of these stories. Opa told me this might be the last time we see one another. He said, “I’m not going to live much longer. But I’m not sad; I’ve lived a long, intense life.” I remember him walking us to the door, shaking our hands, the customary way to say goodbye. Only this time, it was accompanied with a hug, kiss and a whisper in my ear: “I love you.”
It makes me incredibly sad to think about never seeing him again, so I have to believe in the immortality that the stories I now treasure provide.