I recently returned from a family reunion that left me with a lot to think about. Yes, we caught up with the present of our lives, we watched the kids form their own little societies, we cooed over the babies, and sang songs late into the night around the campfire. But we also received a tremendous gift.
Two of my cousins had conducted interviews with the generation above us — the six boys and one girl who were children of our Oma and Opa. Just in time for this reunion, they distilled 21 hours of footage into a one-hour story that led us through their parents’ early lives in the Netherlands to their own years shortly after emigrating to Canada. They built on (and used photos from) the year-long project of another of our cousins to scan all the old family photos and documents and organize them into a CD that she then distributed to us ten or so years ago.
The film even began with a video none of us had seen before (and many didn’t even know existed) of the oldest uncle (now 78) as an 18-month old, toddling beside a canal in his short pants, babbling and crying until his Opa takes him for a boat ride. Like I said, a deep and tremendous gift.
One that spawned a great deal of storytelling and conversation afterwards.
The thing is, very few of those stories (some familiar, some new to me) and very little of the conversation was flattering to my grandparents, as parents.
My aunt and uncles grew up in what was probably a fairly typical upperclass home. Father’s study was the Holy of Holies, where you dared not enter unless you’d been granted permission, and woe unto you if you were sent there, and left to twist in agonizing anticipation while he made you wait to confess. Displays of emotion were unseemly, even positive ones, even within the privacy of the home. They were minister’s children, so their public behavior reflected back on their father, and violations were often dealt with harshly. There are stories that would break your heart and make you angry, but I won’t tell them here. They’re not mine to tell.
What’s mine to wonder is how I see this man who raised my father’s generation. One of his children worried about that and wanted some of the stories never to make it to light, so my generation wouldn’t think too badly of him. Which led me to wonder. How did I think of him?
My Opa died when I was 9, and I’d lived an ocean away for the last few years of his life, so I have just one memory of him, with his head back, shaking with silent laughter at a family party. What I have are his children, each one a prime product of intermittent reward.
Think of a squirrel at a birdfeeder that’s hard to reach, either ten feet down a rope or with a pressure-sensitive feeder bar. Watch it make its way to the food, only to be tossed or to fall off. Time after time after time. But it can smell and see the food; it knows it’s there. And every now and then, it manages to snag one seed. It knows food is possible, so it keeps working harder and harder to merit that one occasional seed. In squirrels, it makes for an entertaining show. In people, it makes for highly accomplished, hard charging, hard working risk takers and experts in whatever their chosen field; in other words (whether in academia, politics, business, church, or the nurture of people), my aunt and uncles.
I want to know the man who made them possible so I can better understand them. I admit it, I’m greedy: I want to know it all. The worry that he will seem like the villain of the story is a real one. But if I see him in the whole of his life, I think he’s more of an anti-hero. There is much that he did that was out-and-out heroic.
If an injustice was involved, he sprang into action. When his children were victims, he would march down to the school and demand justice. When his children were perpetrators, he could take calm and imaginative action, such as taking them to the police chief to confess and receive a lecture, and then negotiating restorative justice for the neighbor wronged. During World War II he worked in the Resistance, at considerable risk to himself and his family (including an awesome story of German soldiers coming to the house to search for him; he was home; so one of the aunts popped him in a nightgown and frilly cap and plunked a baby in his lap to successfully fool the soldiers and keep him safe). After the war, he moved his family of 9 to Canada in part so his sons would have more opportunities. He had studied literature before theology, so always wrote well (articles and sermons as well as poetry), and even did literary deconstruction on biblical texts (or so I’m told). He was proud to have played a role in the forward-thinking decision for the denomination to purchase land to increase the size and scope of Calvin College. And although I’m sure Oma frustrated him in other ways, he admired her more childlike and less anguished faith.
And here’s where the stories I won’t tell would go. Trust me when I say they are not heroic.
So how do I see him? Hero or jerk? As with many either/or questions, I answer, “yes.”
Think of King David. God called him a man after His own heart. David was the king all other Israelite kings were measured against. He took tremendous risks and showed astonishing courage because he trusted God. Yet he was an adulterer and murderer. God wouldn’t let him build the Temple because there was too much blood on his hands. Yet he could recognize when he was wrong, when he’d sinned. He was concerned about justice for the vulnerable in his society. He wrote poetry whose truth and beauty have endured for thousands of years. Yet he let his kids run amok to rape their siblings and kill each other and foment rebellion against their father. He is one heck of a mixed bag.
But if I can look at King David, if I can delve into his story and still wind up admiring him, if I can see him as simultaneously a good example and a cautionary tale, I can do the same for my Opa. After all, I do the same for myself all the time. We are, each of us, a pretty mixed bag.
I hope my aunt and uncles aren’t afraid to tell us more. I think we can take it — not so much to understand him as to understand and appreciate them more.
How is truth handled in your family? Buried or blabbed? Fought about or trumpeted?