Back to the Ocean
Born in 1938, my grandma was just old enough to remember the 2nd World War. Old enough to vividly remember her mother lying above her and her younger brother to shield them from the bombs. Old enough to remember the harsh times afterwards when she was stealing coal to sell for food.
She rarely talked about those times, but many at her age had similar experiences. My grandpa, born in 1931 was at the lucky age to neither join the Hitler Jugend, nor be drafted as a soldier. Regardless, he had to make ends meet by looking for work wherever possible. He never talked about anything that happened in that time, except that he still knew the place on his way to Hamburg where he had buried his gun.
Shortly after the war, my grandma’s younger brother suddenly died from an infection. Her mother, deeply in grief, was staying at his grave, completely discarding her daughter at home. My grandma was the youngest daughter, waiting alone for her parents, while her older sisters were out with friends.
Many years later, my grandma and grandpa ended up living in the same housing block. As it was back then, all the neighbors knew each other. A few more years passed, and the two became a couple and eventually married. My grandpa, a learned confectioner, was working in the harbor, and while the pay was alright, the real treasure was in the shipments coming from overseas. Regularly, boxes of brand-new clothes, furniture or utensils would “break”, and its content taken home by my grandpa and his colleagues. My grandma, working at a large electronics company, ended up wearing the newest clothes from the US before they were sold in the stores. It seemed to have been a good time for them; material abundance in a flourishing city.
After Germany was remilitarized in 1955, the first weapon shipments were reaching Germany through Hamburg. While grandpa’s colleagues kept looting boxes and even took guns, he got nervous and quit. Shortly after, several of his colleagues were arrested. His next and last job was as a guard in a high security prison, handling murderers, pedophiles and rapists. Being in such company did not pass by unnoticed and he started drinking. Every day, he managed to drive home safely after work, despite being completely drunk. My grandpa never told me about it, and even my grandma seemed to have only mentioned it to me by accident.
After many years of keeping up with it, my grandma confronted him and told him that she would leave him if he would not stop. Almost overnight he became sober and lost the weight he had gained, but for my grandma, their relationship would never be the same again.
In 1961 my father was born and while he was young, a small dachshund and a budgie entered their family. Bird and dog became good friends, sharing food and joining my dad in the bathtub.
Little did they all tell me about my fathers’ childhood. His teenage years seemed to have been rebellious though, as he was forced by his parents to finish school, barely graduating with the lowest degree. After mandatory military service, he became a car repairman until his mother found him a job in the logistic department of a large insurance company.
Just as my grandparent had met each other by living next door, so had my dad and my mother.
They got married, and after several years had a son. Unfortunately, their luck should not last. The ongoing tension between my grandmother and my mother, with my dad not supporting my mother when she needed him the most, lead to their divorce.
My mother was given full custody, with my father being able to see me every 2nd weekend. From the divorce and the ongoing legal battle, my father developed a deep depression and lost most of his teeth. Without the financial support of my grandparents, he would have lost the little time that he was legally allowed with me.
When I turned 6 my father gained custody, which flipped the previous arrangement. My grandparents had a small camper at the Baltic sea, and I spent most of my summer holidays with them there.
It was probably the best time family wise, although I can’t recall most of it. I do remember though how my grandpa was always quiet and supportive, grandma leading the bunch of us, and my dad cheerful and happy as if he had never lost his inner child.
Then, throughout high school, I developed very differently than what they had hoped for. My dad was gaining weight and so did I. He was getting bullied at his work and I was at school. I was asking for help, but neither my dad nor my grandparent could properly help me. I started to distance myself from them, shutting myself out and draining the sadness with food and videogames.
Of course, neither my dad nor my grandparents liked it, but instead of addressing the root cause, they kept confronting me. Being only a fraction of their age, I did not have the experience nor knowledge to fix my situation. At the same time, my grandma started blaming my dad for what happened to me, while also confronting him about his weight gain. He was not getting the support he needed and in return, I wasn’t either.
The relationship to my dad suffered a lot during that time. When I was home, I stayed in my room and only talked to my dad during breakfast or dinner. We were more like flat mates than family. The only thing my grandma could think of was blaming my dad, but of course, that only made things worse. At the same time, my grandpa developed dementia and gradually became a different person. Sleeping through most of the day and wanting to paint the walls at night, barely recognizing his family. As his physical state started to deteriorate too, my grandma could no longer care for him and brought him into an elderly home. Just as I was about to do my finals in school, he ran away from the elderly home and died in a field in the countryside. It took almost half a year to find his remains.
I finished school with no direction for my life and enrolled at a university. While I was busy with studying, my father and grandma were taken from the loss. They both went to a psychiatrist, but did not open themselves up to heal any wounds. While I lost weight and slowly gained independence for my life, my father stayed depressed. His only remedies were eating sweets and Facebook games. Shortly after I finished my Bachelor’s degree and started my Master, I found my father one morning next to his bed.
The months afterwards, me and my grandma lived together while sorting through the things my father had keep with him his whole life. Our mutual suffering bonded us and helped us to pull through. But while my life was just getting started, my grandma had now lost the purpose of hers. I did no longer need her guidance, and she had no vocation, hobby, or close friends to give her life a meaning. Her depression kept getting worse with each small setback. She needed a cane, then a walker, then she suffered a stroke. Her body was slowly giving in and she did not want to fight it. Before I helped her move into a residency for elderly, I had to run errands and take care of her daily.
In the residency she had many people around her, but did not want to spend time with any of them. She kept to herself and did not want any visitors. Like a bitter old woman, she was moaning about the people, the food, the staff, and kept looping back to the same points that kept defining her life: The divorce of her son, and her husband and son dying. She kept telling me how horrible I had been years ago, and make me responsible for my father’s death. She wanted to be relieved from the suffering, be with her son and husband again; she wanted to die.
One morning in early December, she did not eat and could not get out of bed. Once in the hospital, there was nothing left they could do for her. Her heart was getting weaker by the hour. She kept sleeping through most of her last days.
It was the closure she had hoped for: no pain, no dementia, no intensive care. Her last struggle only lasted a month or two. When she told me in March before I left for Korea, that it would be the last time we would see each other, I did not believe her. When she told me the day before she died that she would get out of the hospital soon, go through rehabilitation and hopefully regain some of her eyesight, I believed her.
Having lost all the family I’ve grown up with makes me nostalgic. Nostalgic for the get-togethers on Sundays to eat Grandma’s food, the time at the Baltic sea, the summer holidays at the North Sea, or skiing in the Alps. All the small memories that I’ve forgotten and are now popping up, but one day will disappear with me. They make me realize that I had a good childhood. Even if my teenage years and early adult life had been defined by hardship.
Sometimes I wish I would have known them better. Known more about my grandparent’s childhood; How they experienced the war and the years afterwards. What my dad was up to in school, what his dreams were and his time with my mother.
They loved me and so did I love them, even if our love showed itself in different ways. I am for certain though, that they are proud of what I have become and achieved, regardless of what happened in the past.
Now they all went back into the ocean. May we see each other again someday.
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