My two best friends when I was a child were my dog, Misty, and my grandfather, Opa. Both of them adored me.
Misty followed me everywhere. Opa sang me songs, put me on his shoulders, and ate my cooking (sand very carefully mixed with water and pressed between my toddler palms). Opa swung me in the swing he hung from the rafters of his garage workshop. During nap time together, we huddled under the covers, not sleeping when we were supposed to be sleeping. When Oma would scold, Opa would wink.
Opa was the reason I had sugar on my eintopf (it made the veggies taste better). He was magic. I’ll never forget the Christmas Eve he rolled out my new bike: bright, shiny red with stickers on it and tassles on the handlebars. MAGIC!
When I was eight years old, I came home from school to find everyone sitting, somber, around the kitchen table. Opa had a heart attack. I didn’t get to say goodbye.
That was the first time I saw my father cry. We sobbed together on my four-poster bed. My father was only 35 years old, a significance that wouldn’t strike me until I was in my mid-30s and childless.
After Opa’s funeral, I woke one night suddenly, smelling his cigar in my bedroom. Every year since I have remembered his Jahrzeit without trying. December 4, 1982: the day my Opa went away, but never left me.
Growing up, I never thought about having kids or imagined what a family of my own might look like. When I finally became a mom, I suddenly realized that since we live more than a thousand miles apart, my daughter wouldn’t have the weekly visits with her Opa, my father, that I’d enjoyed as a child.
But my daughter doesn’t just have one, or even two, sets of grandparents. She has the family that her first and adoptive moms made for her, and that family includes a Grandpa who lives just 25 minutes away (15 if the traffic isn’t bad).
Yesterday we visited Grandpa at work. My heart shone in a hundredfold glow when I saw Grandpa proudly holding his granddaughter and showing her off to his co-workers.
My Opa didn’t just give me laughter and caring, he anchored me to my biology and history. I am German-American, not just American, because my Opa (along with the rest of my family) sang to me the Deutsche Lieder of my childhood. Parts of that connection are hard and complex, but they are ME, and I wouldn’t change them for anything.
Watching my daughter, I know that her Grandpa will anchor her to her history, to the indigenous Mexican family of her great-grandfather, to an inheritance of hard work and good stories. There’s struggle and suffering in that inheritance, yes, but there’s also laughter and a love of thick books and bright colors. That connection is HER, and I wouldn’t change it for anything.
My daughter has her Grandpa, and in so many ways, my daughter’s mom gave her that relationship. No parent wants to hear that their grandchild will be raised by strangers. My daughter’s mom involved her parents early in the choice of us as adoptive parents and that made all the difference.
Our daughter’s mom made us a family. She didn’t just choose my wife and I as parents, she chose us all as a family, and nudged us to come together around our shared love for this amazing little girl. And we followed, we opened our hearts to each other, and it is sometimes easy, sometimes awkward, sometimes hard…but always, always right.