My dad was only human…

Author’s note: This story shares an event in my childhood, my dad’s 40th birthday, whose impact subconsciously stayed with me into adulthood. Today would have been my father’s 80th birthday – he died last November, ten days before my 43rd birthday, a few months after I finished this story. I grew to love my dad very much, once I learned he was only human…

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I awoke with a gasp. Today is the day.

My eyes popped wide open, my heart raced, I threw off my red plaid comforter, bolted around my brother’s bed like the next contestant on the Price is Right, not caring if I woke him.

Today is March 31st, a Sunday, Dad’s only day off, he should still be in bed.

I slipped and slid across the parquet wood floor, down the short hallway in my slick footed pink polka dotted pajamas towards my parent’s bedroom. It was a small two-bedroom apartment, in a building finished in the early 1960s on Howard St. in the northern Chicago neighborhood of Rogers Park. Sundays were quiet, not a car stirred in the parking lot below my bedroom window, no TVs blared through the plaster thin walls, no babies wearing shoes stomped across the bare wood floors over our ceiling.

The door to my parent’s bedroom was slightly open. My mother was up making coffee in the small galley style kitchen. The smell of Folgers wafted through the air. I had him for myself. His eyes were closed. He didn’t hear me come in.

Without a thought I leapt onto the big bed and bounced my way toward him, a big grin stretching across my face. “Happy Birthday Daddy!” I yelled. My heart bursting with joy, my mind swimming with images of balloons, strawberry whipped cream cake, presents and a piñata like the one I had at my third birthday only four months earlier. I was ready to celebrate the birth of the man I loved with all of my little heart and soul.

“I don’t celebrate birthdays,” he snapped looking off towards the closet.

Laying like a mummy under the covers, his balding head all I could see, his unshaven face showing no emotion other than a look of disgust as he turned slightly away from me as if I was spreading a disease called birthday. My body stiffened, I had run into a stone cold wall where I thought a soft warm embrace was awaiting me. My heart cracked, withered and then dropped into my stomach with a thud.

What had I done wrong?

My three-year-old brain understood that birthdays were for celebrating.

Wasn’t that my dad behind the camera at my birthday party?

Third birthday of author...
Third birthday of author…

Our small apartment overflowed with our Chicago relatives, his German relatives in the living room waiting for the cake to be served while my mother’s Cuban relatives were in the kitchen chatting and cooking up a storm. Simple white streamers and pink and red balloons were strung across the heavy dark green curtains. A burro piñata waited in the corner to be sacrificed by the hands of my cousins.

Photos captured me prancing between the groups in my pretty new light blue eyelet dress made by my Cuban grandmother.

Photos captured me excitedly greeting my Uncle Danny at our front door to see what he had brought me.

Photos captured me blowing out a number three candle.

My dad bore witness to the celebration and the happiness all from behind his camera. Doesn’t this make him a participant?

My innocence assumed my father shared my vision of the world. At age three, I loved celebrations, I loved my relatives, I loved cake and I loved presents. I knew birthdays were when all of the things I loved came together. My father was part of that world.

I loved his musky smell of wood and sweat. When he came home from work I would find wood shavings in his clothes or hitching a ride in the hairs of his large Popeye-sized forearms. He was a man dedicated to his craft as a violin maker, a trade he brought with him when he emigrated from Germany. He also brought with him, the old-school ethic of working 16-hour days, 6 days a week, leaving little time for anything more than eating, sleeping and watching TV.

Dad at work circa 1980s.
Dad at work circa 1980s.

Brief visits to the violin shop he owned with his brother peppered my childhood. Its location between our apartment and my elementary school provided us with a special opportunity to see my father while he worked.

Everyday he had a different routine, whether it be varnishing finished instruments, bending ribs, or chiseling violin tops and bottoms until they were the perfect width.

On Tuesdays he rehaired bows. I remember sitting and watching him carefully remove the old hair off the bow, then cutting a hank of new blonde hair from what used to be the tail of a horse, stuff one end into the tip of the bow, wedging it in with a small piece of wood, then combing the three-foot strands of hair before wedging the other end in with a mortise joint into the frog or base of the bow. I was mesmerized by the fluid almost poetic motion of his hand going up and down while combing those strands of horsehair. I secretly wished he would comb my hair too, and then adorn it with a beautiful piece of abalone shell similar to those that cover the mortise joint of the most beautiful bows.

I was jealous of my wooden siblings. The intimacy my father shared with each of his instruments, his attention to detail, his flawless craft, and words of pride, was never bestowed on his creations that shared his DNA.  I desired to be the focus of his attention. I wanted him to know me as well as each curve of a violin. I wanted him to know the songs that sang from my soul. His violins, violas and cello were his other children and there were many, almost 1,000 by the time he retired.

But why didn’t he celebrate birthdays?

In confusion and terror I ran towards my mother wailing, aftershocks trembling through my tiny body, a trail of sorrow following me.

My mother roared like a mama bear, thrashed like a tornado through the living room towards her bedroom. I trailed the vortex, as I ran to my room, crying uncontrollably at the storm I had created. I found shelter under my covers, was comforted by my stuffed animals, as I listened to my mother scream at my father. “She is only a child!”

At age three, I didn’t understand how a person’s value system could change so drastically with promises of everlasting life.

I didn’t understand how celebrating a birthday was a sin, an unspeakable event.

I didn’t understand how an adult could be so cruel and callous to his own child.

To this day, almost 40 years later, I still don’t completely understand. What I do know is on that day the universal treaty of trust between father and child broke.

I would try for most of my childhood to get my dad’s attention – something he so easily gave to his instruments and his new religion. When I was seven I started to go with him to Wednesday night bible study. I didn’t go because I loved the Lord’s word, or felt I had a duty to attend. I went because I wanted to be with my dad.

Sitting in the cramped basement of my Dad’s brother’s house with a handful of others, everyone taking turns reading from the Jehovah’s Witness version of the bible. I sat next to my dad, feeling his warmth through his flannel shirt, our hands touching as we shared his bible.  I eagerly waited my turn to read. I didn’t care what Job or Matthew said, I wanted to show off my reading skills to my dad. I wanted him to hear how his seven year old daughter could read at a fifth grade level. I wanted him to bear witness to my evolution, be proud of me, to love me.

The calm after the storm was eerie. We ate breakfast in silence. My father quickly disappeared to the Kingdom Hall, to be surrounded by his new tribe. My mom may have taken my brother and I to my grandmother’s house a few blocks away or the Laundromat across the street. We never talked about this again. There were no apologies, no consoling words, no hugs, no admissions of love.

Author with dad circa 1994.
Author with dad circa 1994.

 

Throughout my life March 31st was a day I tried hard to ignore. I suppressed urges to buy a birthday card with a sarcastic remark – those years I was angry with him – or one with sappy proclamations of love to a fantasy dad – those years I loved him.

Two years ago my father wondered aloud to my mother, why I hadn’t called him on his birthday. Was old age lifting the dams of religious dogma from his heart allowing him to recall the things he truly enjoyed in life?

He would have turned 80 this year, 40 years since I last wished him a happy birthday. I was planning on surprising him with a visit, to tell him “Happy Birthday Daddy!”

La Varde 1944 – Opa’s Last Stand

Why does the death of my grandfather, a man I never met and my father hardly knew, fascinate me?

War is no light matter, we are all touched by it. I have been touched by it. My family a casualty of it.
War is a part of my history.

To bring war out of the history books, out of the television, the newspapers, out of one’s imagination, out of my imagination, I felt a need to retrace the final days of my grandfather’s life.

When my older brother mentioned he was going to France to find Opa’s grave, I had to go along. I wanted to make my history, my reality. I wanted to see and feel the place where the battles of Normandy freed a continent on the souls of so many men. I wanted to own the small fraction of that piece of history that was my heritage.

Opa in WWI.
Opa the soldier in WWI.

 

I don’t know much about my grandfather. He was born in Meerane Saxony Germany in 1897, a town near the Ore mountains. My father shared with me that my grandfather’s family came from many woodworkers. Some say this region is where many Western Christmas traditions came from: the Nutcracker, Christmas pyramids, and arches, and the famous smokers. He had served as a young man in WWI and received an iron cross for bravery. He was a musician and violin maker. He moved to the Netherlands during the Great Depression where he met my grandmother and settled in Den Hague. It was in Den Hague that he opened a violin shop. And it was here in February of 1943, when my father was only eight, that he was drafted at the age of 45 into Hitler’s war.

Opa the violin maker.
Opa the violin maker in Den Hague.

I wrote in a previous post, that my grandfather was in an anti-tank division stationed in the Netherlands until June 1944, when his company 657 panzerjager were sent to Normandy and deployed in St. Lo area.

In that previous post, I also stated we thought there was conflicting information about the location of my Opa’s death. A document my brother received from the German government said he died in La Varde, which my brother translated as Fort La Varde near St. Malo in Brittany.  A letter received by my step-great grandfather, in 1948, from a comrade who was with Opa at the time he died stated Opa died in a foxhole near St. Lo.

Well the mystery still remains, but I think my brother has found the best answer and that is in a small hamlet called La Varde on the Cotentin peninsula near St. Lo. This was the location of a battle located in the marsh surrounding the Taute river. Americans, under General Macon, were making their way towards St. Lo and discovered a small German stronghold on the hamlet of La Varde. American troops sludged through knee deep mud, threw grenades and fired rifles towards the ill prepared Germans in the late summer afternoon of July 17th, 1944.

La Varde, France
La Varde, France
Opa’s last stand, La Varde. La Varde is a small black box right of center.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My grandfather was killed instantly when a piece of flying shrapnel from a grenade sliced it’s way across his neck and through his jugular vein. He was in France for less than a month. It was probably his first experience in combat.

His body would lay in the muck of that marsh for a few days, until the fighting stopped and the dead could be collected and brought to a proper burial place. Opa’s last stand.

Or was it…

As I walked along the beach near Fort La Varde, the morning we were to visit his grave, I said a little prayer for my Opa. I wanted him to know my brother and I wanted to pay our respects, to say thank you for his sacrifice and to let him know that his legacy continues. I think he was tickled we were there and  we were thinking of him, a person we never knew. Opa, it will take more than war to break the bonds of our family! Thank you Opa!

Last family picture.
Last family picture, my father is the seated little boy.