Opa and I

My grandfather, whom I called “Opa,” and I were best buddies. He sharpened my instincts and shared his love for nature during our weekly hikes in the woods.

Each weekend, I eagerly awaited the moment when I was dropped off at Opa and Oma’s one-bedroom apartment in a small town at the heart of Germany’s industrial center.

It was 1960 and I was five years old. Opa worked as a foreman at a steel mill, and on Friday afternoons I sat on the hill by the giant iron wrought gates of the factory, impatiently waiting for the siren to belt out its husky call or signal, announcing the end of the working week. I watched as hundreds of blue-clad workers streamed out of the wide gates, bustling with excitement at the weekend of storytelling and fun ahead.

As soon as I spotted Opa, I scrambled down the hill and sprinted towards him, throwing my arms around his neck as he twirled me around.  He carried me a small distance, before setting me back on my feet, when I skipped alongside him, chattering all the way.

By the time we reached the fourth floor of the old apartment block with its red-stained wooden stairs and a communal toilet one flight of stairs down, he was already well-informed about all that transpired in my life that week.

Opa would listen to me with endless patience, nodding and smiling from time to time. When it was finally his turn to speak, he could tell hours’ worth of exciting and animated stories that always started with, “Once upon a time…” His stories weren’t always happy. He told of difficult times during the war, of food rationing and hardship, cold winter evenings huddled in blankets without coal in the stove.

We loved our Saturday and Sunday morning walks in the nearby forest, where Opa taught me the names of trees, berries, and shrubs, and best of all, how to find my way back home by remembering landmarks.

Oma cooked on her big coal stove, which also served as the apartment’s only heating. In winter, the heat barely reached the adjacent bedroom. She had a big heavy iron weighted with coals, which she used to iron Opa’s shirts and work uniform.

During the freezing winter months, we would dress in flannel pajamas when it was time for bed and quickly jumped under the large puffy quilts. Those were happy, carefree days, but also days that formed my character and instilled in me a thankful heart.

Opa died when I was 12 years old, leaving a void in my life, but his departure taught me to pray, and at times I felt his presence, like a small voice of conscience that directed and encouraged me.

Having experienced the value of time with a grandparent, I also try to make time for undivided attention to the grandchildren who live near me. It’s a wonderful investment that blesses both me and them, as Opa taught me all those years ago.