An epilogue to the previous post, “Gifts.”
On Christmas Day of 1979, my parents, my sisters, and I drove out to Stony Brook to visit with Oma and Opa. Opa was in the terminal stage of the cancer that would take his life the following March. Christmas was very, very different that year. Oma’s advanced age and Opa’s severely weakened condition made living in the four floor walk-up next-door to us in Queens impractical, so they had settled into the Stony Brook cottage. Our Christmas Eve tradition of have a supper of German cold-cuts and salads up in their apartment before coming down to our house to open presents was suspended for the first time in my lifetime.
My father was spending as much time with them as he could while still running his drugstore full-time, and they were blessed with caring neighbors who helped out as well. Much of all this activity I had missed because I was in my sophomore year at college and I was up in Albany.
The day was overcast, cold, and damp. We arrived in the early afternoon. Oma met us at the door and hugged each of her grandchildren and spoke in hushed tones. Opa was in the living room that also functioned as a dining room, sitting his old rocking chair in the corner. He was in pajamas and a thick terry-cloth robe that couldn’t hide his emaciated condition.
My father helped Opa out of the rocker and to the table. Opa was clearly in pain and his legs were too weak to support his weight. Oma had prepared a scaled-down version of are traditional Christmas Eve supper: knockwurst, bauernschinken, cervelat, creamed herring for my father, and potato salad. Oma had also thoughtfully prepared a small dish of tuna salad just for me as she always had since the one time, when I was six years old, I had told her that I liked it. Opa couldn’t eat much of this food anymore. His meal consisted of mashed potatoes and a small piece of bauernshinken Oma had cut up for him and a piece of buttered bauernbrot.
After our meal, at Opa’s request, my father and I helped Opa into the sun parlor, we sat him down in the middle of the sofa that faced the window and slowly pivoted him so that he could lay down. My father stood at the edge of the sofa and held Opa’s shoulders and gently laid him down. “Get his legs, Freddie,” my father quietly said. I knelt down and with both hands picked up his ankles and laid them down on the sofa. All I felt through his pajamas was bone. Opa winced several times during this procedure. Oma came in and covered him with one of her loudly-colored homemade afghans. The excitement of the day – the anticipation our visit, the meal – had taken its toll on him and he quickly fell asleep.
Later, while we were all quietly talking in the living room, Opa woke up. In a loud, stern voice, he called out, “Children! Come here!”
My sisters and I filed into the sun parlor and stood before him on the sofa. My parents stood in the doorway. It was about 5 o’clock and the sun, hidden all day, was low in the sky, finally breaking through the clouds and barren trees outside briefly lighting up the room.
“We will now sing a Christmas hymn,” Opa said. With that, he began to sing, in German, “O Tannenbaum.” This was unusual for several reasons. First of all, my sisters and I speak no German whatsoever (aside from the names of the food Oma served us, and I had to Google them in order to spell them correctly here), much less the words to “O Tannenbaum.” Second, we were never the sort of family that sang Christmas carols at home. Maybe in church, but never at home among ourselves. We did, of course know the tune, so we joined in and hummed along with him, awkwardly at first.
Opa sang verse after verse with one hand desperately clutching the afghan tightly to his chest, the other holding my hand. He struggled to find the strength to continue singing and his eyes turned glassy.
I am forever haunted by that moment. I remember thinking at the time about that sun parlor in earlier times, when we were children. All those summer nights Oma and Opa shared with the steady stream of grandchildren. The joyous laughter that arose from the board games we played with Oma and competed with the crickets outside. Those times, those children, all seemed so far away on that Christmas Day.
Thirty years later, a question that can never be answered lingers on for me. Where was he in that moment singing a Christmas carol that none of us but him knew? My lifelong love of stories and literature and reading and writing has been quest for understanding what makes all of us who we are, to see into that inner life we all live.
The first half of Opa’s life was very difficult. Born into poverty just before the dawn of a new century, he struggled to survive all of the turmoil of his times. As a child in the early days of that new century he could have scarcely imagined the course his life would take. He was a soldier in one world war, a refugee in another. He struggled just to feed his family during the Great Depression. Living long enough to see not only his two sons go to college in the country he may have dreamed about, but also all of his grandchildren.
So, where was he on that Christmas Day? What memory was his inner self reliving? The carol he sang had no real connection to us. It’s presumptuous to think that during what he knew was his last Christmas, with an entire lifetime to consider, most of which preceded us, he was remembering one of “our” Christmases. I can never know, I can only imagine. Maybe it was a December night in 1915 or 1916. He and his comrades, all of them cold, dirty and hungry, had briefly found themselves in a warm, quiet place. Maybe while he sang “O Tannenbaum” with his comrades, he imagined a hopeful future, free of hunger, free of strife, and free of fear.
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