tmbt: family history
My grandfather’s eyes shine with extra delight and sadness suddenly, and mine respond. As if our tear ducts were tied by thick unseen strings, we both well up but keep talking as if everything is normal. He is telling the stories, pulled by the encouragement of his wife, seated on my left, sustained by the pancakes, sausage, and eggs below him. Ellis Island. His parents made the voyage from Germany just in time to escape the Gestapo who came for his father – an outspoken Protestant preacher and anti-Nazi activist – only three days after the ship departed in the direction of New York. It is a dramatic, film-worthy story I’d heard third-hand from my father before. Now, the details were flushed out under those kind eyes, somehow much kinder and softer than I had ever remembered.
My grandfather is a tall man, broad and stronger than any seventy-year-old silver-haired man I’ve ever seen. A retired navel officer and later fabrication engineer, now again retired, he is a logical, straight-forward man, and stern. He still wears a buzz cut and his clear blue eyes are as keen as I imagine they must have been on the ships he worked as a much younger man. And he is afraid and sad.
At this breakfast, he speaks of a past inspiration to record our rich family history on video and paper, including the stories that surround the bullet he has that was pulled from his grandfather’s still-breathing chest, an old Stradivarius violin, and the extensive coin collection he sold to his father at face value as a teenager only to have it returned to him on his father’s seventieth birthday. These are only the beginning of the wealthy bits of history he wants to share. This morning, he is hinting softly about his regret for his sons’ disinterest, but it is screaming inspiration into my ears and setting it firmly on my heart.
Those who know me well know that my personal family history is not a joyous one. It is one filled with confusion, chaos, and at the risk of sounding melodramatic… despair. In fact, though I have never said it out load to anyone, I have often thought of leaving my last name behind, looking forward to discarding it when I get married again some day. Suddenly, that is all changing right here, right now.
Sitting here with my grandfather, his eyes not only filled with would-be tears, but also regret for whatever transpired to set the Philipp boys on a path to create sad families, I think perhaps family inspiration skips a generation if only for the sake of sheer survival. Perhaps we are too close to the hopes and disappointments we experience with our parents to keep the love of family history alive with them. I cannot speak for others, but this certainly seems to be the case for us. And after much of my lifetime feeling so disengaged from my paternal family especially, watching, indeed feeling, the inspiration skip across the generation from my grandfather’s eyes into mine, I am somehow being recreated. The idea of experiencing myself as part of a family, a real part of it, is enough to nearly bring me to my knees. The idea that my outstretched palm-up hand is enough to let my grandfather hope to pass on those things that are so dear to him is a gift to me like no other.
As I type, I am back “home” for a short visit on the occasion of Christmas. My parents, divorced long ago and still estranged, and my siblings, all living very separate lives, are here. For the first time I can remember, I feel an inkling of where I fit in to the picture – no longer a weird interjection from out-of-state, a shining example of the escape possible, the emotionally gangly thing that fidgets on the end of the couch. I’m the sister, the aunt, the daughter living far away, but now so near to them all. I know my grandfather’s visit was a powerful catalyst for this and I am so happy for the change.
Today, my family history, some seen, some unseen is a most beautiful thing to me. And the great-grandfather who arrived with his wife and one-year-old son on Ellis Island? He is part of me. I think it’s time to pay a little visit to that island, to the wall of surnames that represent the families who came here for something better than what they had, or the alternative in store for them.
And on that wall is a name I now know I will never leave behind: Philipp.
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