“Dag, Pamy.” In the dark of my studio apartment in San Diego, the Dutch voice of my grandfather came into my sleeping brain. Tears flowed as I knew then that my Opa was gone forever. He’d died a few days before and, I, in my last semester of university 6000 miles away, could not get to his funeral. Now, in the dark, I had my final goodbye.
He’d welcomed me, his American grandchild. First of 20 of us. He’d raised 8 boys and two girls. I must have been a curiosity to him, this small quiet girl who watched and listened. He lived in a cigar smoke-smelling study with walls lined with books. In the corner were portraits of each of his children – all 10 of them. My father, his eldest was about 18 in his and his youngest, Rob was a toddler. Rob is 9 years older than I am and remains more like an older brother than an uncle to this day.
My Opa presided over the dinner table each lunch and dinner sitting right at the head of the table looking over all of us and out to the garden. I don’t think I remember ever seeing him in the kitchen. However, he was happy to have me sit quietly in the corner of his study and keep him company. As I grew older, my summer trips to visit my grandparents alternated between time spend in the garden playing badminton and time spend in his study reading his books. Later on these books ended up at my Uncle Pith’s house where I read every Agatha Cristie and eventually, it seemed, anything that he had in English.
And yet this story is not one of grandparent and grandchild. Instead it is of the values that he passed down. His study, the books, the studiousness and then the ever present images of his children defined a truly moral life. In World War II, he’d published an underground newspaper, and planned for the next Dutch government after liberation. He’d been captured by the Nazi’s 10 days before liberation, sent north of the Rhine and into jail. His roommate had been shot, but my Opa’s father had come from Germany – and he was saved. His interrogators asked how he could betray his fatherland – not understanding that Opa would never put theoretical race identity above real morality.
He returned home after the war to 6 children and a grateful wife – and went onto have another 5 children. One died at the age of 2 – a lasting effect of war-time diet. He was just a simply biology teacher who carefully managed each and every cent to ensure that each child went to university – and 9 of them did. Each child had a budget set annually from the age of 6. And they still talk, in awe and terror, about how they had to turn to older kids to help them develop the first budget of their lives. The all-important university budget was carefully accounted for and had to be repaid – only to be lent to the next child in line.
As a result of this strict upbringing, his children were more terrified of him than I was. My mother tells of the siblings all playing games after they were supposed to be in bed. Remember she was the wife of his eldest son and found herself with random brothers-in-law of various ages hiding in her bed during this game. Finally, Opa stood at the bottom of the stairs and yelled sternly: “Kinderen”. With much rustling and whispering, everyone reappeared in their correct bed – and my mother recovered her new husband.
During university, I heard that he was sick with liver cancer. He became more and more irrational with his life. The temperance that he had stood for went out the window as the cancer poisoned his body. My Oma was deeply unhappy with him for this perceived treason of their 50+ years together. However, I, from across a large ocean and a large continent, forgave him every transgression and hoped that the rest of the family would come to forgive a sick man. I’m not sure that they ever did.
When I graduated and made it back to Maastricht that summer, someone asked what I wanted. I simply asked for an empty cigar box so that I could smell his study forever more.
I married a man who had left South Africa for political reasons. We have raised a family together with utter devotion to our children. My Opa’s example is one that I strive, however imperfectly, to copy.
This morning I hugged both of my sons to my chest, bending both their heads for a kiss on top of each of them. They are both studying hard in subjects that they enjoy. The 16 year old was headed off to work on lights in a theatre. The 18 year old works in a fast food joint. I am starting to believe that the values my grandfather passed on to me are being passed on again: hard work, dedication to family and lifelong learning.