I held the fish out of the water, showing my family proudly how big it was. Then I heard my Opa bellow, "give the thing a fighting chance, dammit!"
He wanted me to put it back in the water as soon as possible to ensure it's survival. He was big on ensuring the survival of all creatures, big and small. He fed critters. All critters. Deer, birds, squirrels, rabbits, feral cats and dogs. But most of all, he fed people.
He was around ten years old when the WWII ended. As the son of a German officer, he spent several years in German occupied France, living on a French farm. His hosts were kind to him and revisited the farm as an adult to give thanks. When the war ended, he had to find his way back home, unassisted. He was ten years old. The French, indeed the world, had no love for the germans, not even the children. He was tough, smart and resourceful.
He would talk about the war often, but usually not until later in the evening after a number of drinks. "Who wants some sweet shit?" He would ask, after dinner. This meant "who wants some whisky?" I think it was his way of dealing with the memories. When he did talk about the war, he did so studiously and not personally. Very rarely did he tell a personal story about his experience.
He loathed Hitler and the Nazi's. He spoke of the famine he saw throughout Europe. Both of my grandparents had witnessed extraordinary famine and extreme poverty. My grandmother used to follow around the coal wagons as a little girl and elbow her way through other kids for the scraps that would fall off of the wagon. They scavenged for food and any other precious resource.
My grandfather came to Brighton Michigan as the first exchange student the town high school ever had. He liked the town so much that he returned after service and made it his home. He had intended to study medicine at the University of Michigan but my grandmother got pregnant and he withdrew from school to work. Eventually, he started his own machining company. He had a single C&C Laith. He named the company, Brighton NC Machine. It was just him, a Laith, a phone and a cot. A familiar story for a budding entrepreneur. He made the sales calls, machined the parts and delivered them. He had a few friends as outside investors.
Over many years and tireless work that kept him from his wife and children, he made some headway and the company grew. Eventually they would employ over 100 people.
Opa was a product of his childhood, as we all are. Every other Friday he would personally walk the shop floor and hand out the paychecks. With each paycheck he would give his employees a loaf of bread. This was a common gift from Opa. If he showed up to your home, he always brought with him a loaf of bread. To them, as children in war time nothing could have been more precious. It was the ultimate gift. It was telling of the man he was.
When you entered his home, he would immediately begin offering you food and drink. "Would you like a cooke." He would ask. "No thank you, Opa." and he would reply, "Well then, how about two?"
He gave bear hugs. Giant ones. His appetite for food and drink was large. His appreciation for nature was too. When I was a little boy, I was playing in the wood behind his home with my cousins. We stumbled upon him sitting on the top of the largest hill, sitting crosslegged with his hands on his knees and eyes closed. He looked so peaceful. He was meditating.
They lived in a large stone house in the country that we all referred to as "The Stone House." It was the center of all of our lives. My grandfather spent his days working at the shop, then he'd come home and tinker on his tractor or some other contraption that needed repair, then head in for supper.
Their kitchen table was and is my favorite place on earth. It had a stained glass lamp that hung low and cast a red light over the table. Outside the large kitchen window was a big lilac tree and a few bird feeders. We'd all sit and comment on the birds and wildlife.
During dinner and after, the conversation was lively. Dictionaries and encyclopedias would inevitably emerge as ideas and definitions were challenged. Debate was heavily encouraged and Opa was the champ. He had a way with words and was a big fan of flexing his lexiconian chops. English was his second language but he could school the natives. He was smart. Extremely smart and he liked to show it off through language. He was a big fan of the word "rudimentary." Used it often. As a kid, that word seemed enormous to me. Everything about Opa seemed larger than life.
I saw the way people admired him, as a boss, as a husband and as a father. I saw the way he would be late for dinner because he was visiting a sick friend (and dropping off bread). I saw that he donated large sums of money and time to causes like Lacasa, a shelter for battered women or gleaners, a food pantry for the underprivileged.
I saw him give profit sharing to his employees, even in the lean years. I saw him offer tuition reimbursement and I saw him continue to pay terminally ill employees well after they left his charge.
When I went to college, he offered to pay my tuition. Education was the most noble pursuit, in his mind. When my grades failed and I asked him to continue paying he refused, saying "I'll not throw good money after bad." -This felt cruel at the time, but was such an amazing life lesson for me. I owe him such a debt of gratitude for this (and many other lessons.)
He was fond of the Tagore quote, "I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and found that life was duty. I acted and behold, it the duty was joy." You can hear him reading this quote here:
A few days ago, hospice was called in to help my Oma care for my Opa. On fathers day I was able to visit with my children. My son, Atticus has my Opa's name as his middle name. Often, when people hear Atticus name for the first time, especially if they're fans of literature, they'll remark that he has a big name to live up to. I always say that it's his middle name that has the biggest shoes to fill.
Brighton NC is still around. In fact, much of my family works there. I have been asked a bunch of times in my life why I don't work for the family business? I always say that I never wanted to work for my Opa, I wanted to be my Opa.
Those are some huge shoes to fill. I'll never get there, but without my Opa there is NO WAY that I would be an entrepreneur today. There is no way that I would have this insatiable appetite to build something of substance that can employ people towards a common purpose. I owe him so much.
Today, I left work early to go visit him. My aunts were there and two of my favorite cousins. We all sat in his room, my Oma sang German songs and we told stories past and present. It was nice. When it was time to move him, I was asked to hold one side of his sheet. When finished he grasped my hand. I held it for a long time. My Oma said, "why don't we give Steven a few minutes alone with Opa."
I am so grateful for this. I'll admit, I was a bit terrified. What do you say? I said, "I love you." I said, "thank you." I told him I have a company I am building and like you, I will take care of my employees. I told him that I have a beautiful family and that he was such a wonderful influence on my life and that I will be eternally grateful." I said, I have to go now Opa. I will see you tomorrow." I kissed him on the head and said one more "I love you."
Tonight, my mom called at 10:15pm and told me, through thick tears, that Opa died. I kid you not, immediately lightening began to strike outside. Not far away, faint lightening but right on top of the house type of lightening. I began walking upstairs to tell my wife and a huge bolt struck outside and our power went out. As I walked in the bedroom the power came back on and my wife said, "That's some crazy lightning." I replied, "Opa is dead."
When I stopped crying, I wrote on my notepad, "He left on a bolt of lightning."
Thanks for listening Hubski.