Saturday, June 2, 2012

Opa Leijs, 1924-2012

Yesterday I helped to lay my grandfather into the ground. We led the narrow pine casket over a gravel pathway, following a towering man in a waistcoat who gave us instructions in clear, formal diction at each stage of the procession to the plot where Opa was to be interred. After arriving there, we hoisted the coffin off its wheeled platform and placed it on a pair of steel wires that stretched over the grave. An attendant in a black suit pulled a long tool out of a hedge and pressed its end into the ground above the plot. The coffin descended, rocking gently on its cables. There was silence except for the wind and the whirr of the unseen lowering mechanism. Each family paid its respects and walked with crunching steps back to the main building.

In the chapel twenty minutes before, two of my uncles and my aunt Els spoke about Opa. The back of the chapel was open to the graveyard behind it, and light played across the blank walls flanking each person as he or she spoke. A spider spent half the service crawling over one of these walls, primarily visible to me by its elongated shadow. Another spider dangled under the podium. I suppose the building usually stays open in nice weather.

Dozens of relatives and acquaintances came to the visitation and reception to offer condolences to the family. I learned how to say "my condolences" in Dutch but have since forgotten. I also learned how to say "he doesn't speak Dutch" from my mother's repetitions of that phrase, but forgot that as well. I also forgot a lot of names.

With a lot of coffee in you, surrounded with complicated feelings of grief, adrift in a foreign language, and with plenty of time to be alone in your head, you might find yourself wandering over some strange mental topography. You might laugh at a contextless memory, some random neural firing, and reflexively judge yourself for it. You might create a fanciful backstory for the man in the colorful scarf you've just met. You might imagine Opa himself walking into the reception, hunched, an anxious and confused look on his face, his own obituary in his hand. You might be knee-deep in the mire of death in your brain and catch someone's eye and pull a smile up over your face and as the person approaches you with a baggy hand outstretched, you might think "what is it that I don't speak?" You might notice the sun come out and try to see every leaf in a shuddering tree outside, diverting yourself from the people inside, any of whom might approach at any moment.

I saw a lot of distant stares over the last two days. We are rarely able to meet the occasion of a funeral. It refers to a whole life and is over in four hours. What can you say? How much can you remember? Opa has written themes into the lives of two generations. His children and grandchildren will unwittingly echo and translate those themes, play their own variations on them, and write their own, which will inevitably be taken up by their own children and grandchildren. So it goes: a continuous, looping thread.

His window on the world has shut, I think to myself as my mind traces over his empty chair in my Oma's living room. Its cushion remains conformed to the contours of his body. He sat there and told me how batteries work, what his involvement with the Dutch Resistance was like, how difficult it can be to start your own business, what our relatives in Alaska had done for Jesus and how far the family had stretched itself out over the world. He and I stood a few months ago in his garage and looked at his blackboard-sized map of the US, tracing our favorite trips across its yellowed surface and thinking out loud about where each of us would still like to visit. He'd hoped to come to America for Natalie's wedding.

My aunt will now be finishing the genealogy project that he started. In the final decade of his life, knowing where he and his family had come from became enormously important to him. Now he has rejoined many of those distant relations in the earth, that penultimate site of convergence for our human family. Rest in peace, Opa.


  1. "Penultimate site of convergence." I like that. Your Opa sounds like an interesting man who no doubt wrote compelling "themes" into your life.

    I think that I've only been to one funeral that felt as if it captured some sense of the fullness and vitality of a living person, and that was someone who was transformed radically in his life. He was a vivid character, simple but vibrant, and he seemed to have lived two very different lives. A great deal of the astonishment people felt about that change (about what he was before and after) came through, partly because a son was still struggling to forgive the first self, partly because some people were so wildly grateful to the second self.

  2. Alyssa - thanks for the condolences. See you so soon, and in the States even!

    Marly - Interesting is a great word for him. My relationship with Opa was primarily mediated through my mother until I moved to Europe last fall for my program. His funeral was an emotionally complicated affair for many of my relatives because he also seemed to undergo a transformation, although only in the last six or so weeks before he died. It will take a long time to come around to a sense of perspective on his life, with how many different story arcs he's left of himself. Funerals make me wish I were more Jewish; sitting shiva would be so helpful for finding closure—in the case of the complicated deceased especially.