On Friday, I was enjoying a decadent meal in Gastown’s L’Abattoir with Franz, when I leaned back in my booth seat and rested my arm on it, satisfied after my last bite of lamb still mingling with the red wine in my mouth, when I absent-mindedly started playing with a ring on my right hand. A cheap, gross, plastic thing painted in gold that was beginning to flick off, topped off with a fake pearl in crusty plastic diamonds. It’s Gotti and unlike anything I own. I wear it on the same finger as a gorgeous silver ring with an emerald stone that was gifted to me by my step-father on the day of his wedding to my mother. The two make absolute no sense together and should not even be in the same room with another. The cheap gold plastic one has always been loose on my finger, but I still wear it every day. As I twirled it around without noticing whilst talking to Franz, it suddenly fell off and behind the booth, into the radiator. I heard the sound of it fall and my heart instantly leapt into my throat. I knew it was gone. I turned around only to be met with the black vortex of the radiator, where even a small finger could not get through. It was lost. Usually, one would not care if such a dollar store novelty was lost, but to me, it was one of the last things I owned from my Opa Schulze.
My mother’s father wasn’t always a bastard. I know that’s a harsh word, but he is. And not in a loving, oh Grandpa stop complaining about everything, silly Grandpa. In a much more serious way. He didn’t used to be that way. In his youth he was an ambitious man, but a family man at heart. There is a picture that exists of him and my Oma in their first years of marriage dancing at a party, looking the way most people do in pictures from the 1940’s; like they were on a film set. A moment perfectly captured that cameras these days just can’t seem to recreate. He was handsome and smiling. He was a very smiley man, even when I was a kid, before the shit storm happened that resulted in my mother’s family dissolving. Him and my Oma lived in one of this picturesque German houses you see on postcards on the outskirts of Berlin, where during the GDR years, it was in one of the few neighbourhoods with trees and front lawns. His rank in the government allowed him things that others in the East could never have. He even was able to arrange for my father and mother to visit a lake in the West at a vacation house for their honeymoon. A vacation that resulted in my poor 24-year-old and newly married father to be picked up from the Stasi police and interrogated about how there was a picture taken of him in the West (a couple they had met at said vacation house took a picture of them, my father had no clue how they got their hands on it). Growing up in the crowded and grey apartment buildings of 1980’s Berlin, it was a treat every weekend to go to my grand-parents. A house nestled away in trees with a huge backyard that was shared with 3 other houses. I used to play for hours with the other children from said houses, and my Opa would make us a tepee so we could play out our imaginary adventures. He would call me over to his garden so we could eat the sweet peas straight off the vine, then to his front yard where I would spend hours with my sister scouring for walnuts that had fallen from his giant tree. I would bring them all to him, where he would collect them in a basket, and crack them open for me to devour. He was kind, patient, and let me do whatever I wanted. Which included letting my sister and I build a fort behind a giant shelving unit that could have easily crushed us. He had a red scooter I rode up and down the sidewalk until he would treat me to an ice cream.
He loved his grand-children. At the time, there were quite a few of us. My mother had a sister and two brothers, who all had kids. I have flash memories of my aunt’s two daughters and staying at their house and being together at family events, but my older uncle has no place in my memory. To this day, my mother only has contact with her youngest brother, my Uncle Peter. He is a gem of a man and I love him dearly. His kids are the only two cousins I am in contact with on my mother’s side, Christina and Christian (Yup, don’t ask me what my aunt and uncle were thinking either). We are still close, but we have to be. We’re all we got on the Schulze side. To explain further, here’s a small summary of my aunt and uncle who to this day, we have no relationship with.
My aunt became manic-depressive after her husband left her. She stopped talking to my Opa and everyone else, but my mother. She was the only one she trusted. Her two daughters didn’t fare well and were hell on wheels. My mother tried her best to support them, but only one of them made it out of the phase and checks in with her twice a year or so. My aunt officially cut off ties with my mother 6 years ago, and it broke my mom’s heart. My uncle barely had a relationship with my mother the whole time I grew up. There was a brief time around 2002 they started talking again, and then it went away. As for my sister and I, we have no memories of him and have not met his kids. When I see an old picture of him, all I see is the resemblance to my Opa when he was younger, but either then that, I know nothing about this man. A few years ago my Aunt somehow found my mother’s email and informed her she had cancer. That was it. We have no idea if she’s even alive or not.
The first thing to happen that started to tear apart the Schulze family was the death of my Oma. Shortly after, and I mean painfully shortly after, my Opa remarried a much younger woman. To this day, no one likes her, and she makes no real effort to hide the fact that she doesn’t like us either. The first time I visited my Opa Schulze after we had moved to Canada, I could already see the changes. We spent a quiet afternoon sitting down for lunch, and that was basically it. There was suddenly a wall. Visits to him became a courtesy and filled with small talk to fill the silence. Once in a while he would call on my birthday. Years passed, all our lives changed. I went through high school, my mother changed careers and got remarried, and my grandfather lost his beloved house, my mother’s childhood home, and moved into a small apartment with his wife. The summer before I started my new life in Vancouver, I spent a month in Berlin. My cousin Christian was getting married, the first in the Schulze grand-children. Problems with my Opa were with everyone, and it hit a new low when he announced he wouldn’t be coming to the wedding. My cousin gave up on him that day. Apparently, he didn’t want to “travel” all the way to the wedding (it was taking place further out of Berlin), despite the importance of the event. I also tried to not feel too hurt of the fact that he didn’t care to see me. Back then I wasn’t visiting Berlin so regularly. The week of that wedding in 2005 changed all of our lives. That week the truth came out, a past in my mother’s family that was unbelievable and explained why my Aunt trusted no one in our family and why she went crazy, why my Uncle is cut off, and why my Opa became such a quiet man that started to distance himself from his own children. There was suddenly a new version of my Oma that I had to accept. A woman with so many secrets. I remember the morning after, sitting in my sister’s tiny kitchen with my step-dad, my sister’s roommate Jule, Marc and of course my sister as my mother paced back and forth through the halls on the phone with my uncle Peter. My other Uncle tried to call but my mom couldn’t talk to him. His kids started calling asking why they couldn’t come to the wedding anymore. No one wanted to tell them. These cousins I was about to meet for the first time, were suddenly strangers again, and would remain that way. I felt ill. These things don’t happen to real people. I thought I was stuck in a foreign art movie. My chest felt like it was being filled with cement. The fact that we soldiered on from it, made the small part of the Schulze family stronger than ever. The night of the festivities, my Uncle Peter and I stood at the bar doing shot after shot, toasting “to family that matters”.
We all made our peace with it as much as we could, my mother and my Uncle Peter suddenly became the only glue to keep together the pieces that were left. My mother tries to keep a relationship with her father. Because despite everything, she is still daddy’s little girl and craves for his attention. Back in 2009 I was in L.A visiting her for a week when we got a call that he was in the hospital for a severe case of pneumonia. My Uncle told my mom that she should prepare to say good-bye. I sat outside on the front porch talking to Dan on the phone, crying about potentially losing my Opa. I hadn’t talked to him in years, but all I wanted to suddenly do was get on a plane so I could hold his hand. My mother did fly to Berlin, and he held on and came out of it. But after that he became afraid of leaving the house and thinks everything makes him sick. He thinks every day he will die. He wants to die. Badly. I know why. One can only live with your demons for so long. Hence why now he is a bitter man. Every day he wakes up alive pisses him off.
The last time I saw my Opa, I sat across from him politely sipping my tea under the watchful eye of his wife. The way my Opa looked at me was how one would look at a bank teller. Someone you know you need to talk to, but aren’t interested in knowing anything besides the business of your visit. I finally gave up. This was a man who had no interest in my life. After that visit my mother knew both my sister and I had just made the decision to stop making an effort with him. She was on her own now.
We don’t chose our family. It’s strange to think that we have no control over these people that we are supposed to love unconditionally, support no matter what, accept all their faults, all because their blood flows in our veins. Sometimes they do unforgivable things that trumps that loyalty, and we make the decision to no longer associate ourselves with them. We go through years where we think we are okay with this. That it was a choice. Last year I found that stupid plastic ring in the depths of a long forgotten bag. At first I couldn’t even place it, until the memory of my Opa Schulze giving it to me one Christmas when I was still a teenager came back, back when our relationship had already started falling apart. But I had saved it. Now I could throw it away, make closure. But I didn’t. Instead, I put it in my jewellery box. Then I started wearing it. Every day. And that is the power of family. Despite my anger, my pain, my heartbreak over his indifference to me, he was still my Opa. A man who continued a choice from my Oma to keep something hidden that destroyed their children. I could be angry at them, but the fact is, when that decision was made the world was a different place. The position my grand-parents were in had no winning solution, and they thought what they did was best. They were humans that made a mistake, and it cost them. What I am angry about is my Opa not owning up to that mistake and attempting to save his family when everything came to light. He was a coward.
This Christmas, my mom went to see him. She lasted ten minutes then left. She informed me he now has Alzheimer’s, and didn’t know who I was when she showed him a picture. For some reason, this did not faze me. It did not faze me until 3 weeks later, when that ring fell off my finger and disappeared forever. I suddenly realized why I had kept that ring when I found it again, because it was the last piece of my Opa I had. My Opa. The Opa who collected walnuts with me, the one that would watch patiently when I performed yet another dance in front of him, the one that let my sister and I slide down the stairs, the one that pushed me on that red scooter until I could do it myself, the one whose face lit up every time my sister and I ran out of the car towards his open arms, while my Oma hollered from the kitchen that she had made Jello. This ring was the last time his heart had thought enough about me to go to the store beside his little apartment and buy me a stupid plastic ring. Maybe he remembered the walnut tree too. Realistically he probably told his wife to get something for me on her next shopping trip, but I want to believe it was him. I want to believe he cared. The realization that I would never have the chance to make amends with my Opa made me stare at the wall forcing back tears. We can pretend that we’re fine, that it’s for the best, but their blood runs through our veins. My Opa is a part of me, whether I like it or not. I won’t ever have closure with him, I won’t ever be able to tell him he hurt me, that he hurt my mother, but that deep down I still cared. And we’re family. I wanted to share this part of my life with you because it’s one of those things that I think everyone struggles with. We want to forgive, and we should, or at least try, before it’s too late. Because we can stay angry, we can stay hurt, but in the end, if you never had the chance to confront that person or try to get closure from the situation, it fuels an emotion that I despise, regret.
Maybe it’s for the best. In the end, I do have my memories of him as a good man, and that’s the man I choose to call my Opa Schulze.