When I was a little girl, I loved my Opa. I remember sitting on his knee looking at his thick, callused hands, worn from a lifetime of manual labour. He was a farmer. He was gruff and had a thick Dutch accent.
He was always happy to see me. “Is dis Yoy!?” he would say to me each time we met. I was only one of 30 grandchildren, but he was my Opa and I knew he loved me.
I also knew that he loved my Oma. He often referred to her as “my lady” and I could see his respect for her. In her last years, when she was bedridden, he took over many garden plots at the building they lived in and filled them with flowers for her to see out the window. I choke up to this day, thinking of him doing this for his lady.
I come from a very large extended family. My mother was the youngest of 11 children. She tells about an almost daily event, when she was growing up, where the noise at the dinner table would reach an intolerable level and Opa would slam his fist on the table and yell, “NOW!!” and everyone would sink into silence… for a while. I heard about Opa’s anger from his children, my aunts and uncles, throughout the years. It felt like “stories of long ago” I had trouble connecting my Opa to the man whose children feared him and endured his seemingly constant brewing anger and whose wife finally put her foot down saying, “you will never hit them again,” when she feared he would really harm them. I heard about the very rare times that his children saw his care or concern for them, when he showed a sign of affection. These stories were told as if the teller was still stunned by this uncharacteristic display, wondering if it had really happened.
It wasn’t until his funeral, a few years ago, that the link between my Opa and the father that my mother and her siblings experienced started to meld into the same person, in my mind. It was not the stories that spoke about his quirks, his strength, and his imperfections, which created this link for me. It was a feeling that I sensed from my aunts and uncles, which I can only describe as a sense of relief. It was like someone had released oxygen into a room where people had been holding their breathe for a long time. It surprised me, and, at first, confused me. And then, in time, it didn’t.
My Opa was responsible for our family’s existence, here in Canada. None of his offspring live in poverty. We have, for the most part, been spared major sickness, and while, we have known some loss, the 100+ descendants of this man have done well. But his legacy is complicated. Anxiety and depression linger in many of our lives and, while the origins of these struggles may not be cut and dry, his anger left an impression that carries on. I see it in myself when my anger flares out of proportion to the perceived wrong that my children have done. I see it when I have to consciously remove myself from situations, before I act on this anger. I see it in the underlying irritability that I carried for many years, which, thankfully, has dissipated with time, the love of my friends and family and some deep reflection and healing. I also see it in my decisiveness and in my unwavering commitment to my goals. I see it in my willingness to take on long term, exhausting and difficult projects. My Opa’s legacy lives in me, for better and for worse.
Last year, was a national celebration of Canada’s 150th year of confederation. I felt the excitement of celebrating my country and the gathering of people who have come from all corners of the globe to make this place home. I felt pride for the vast riches of natural resources and for the society that has been safe from war on our lands for as long as I have lived. I was proud of the democratic government, the education, healthcare and a social welfare systems and the freedom of religion.
At this time, I also heard the stories of those whose experience of Canada is much different than mine. Of those who experienced the violence of the RCMP and social workers who tore them away from their parents, some whose siblings were never seen again, others who were never the same again. Of those whose experienced our education system as violent, who were beaten by those who saw them as outsiders, and who were humiliated by teachers. Of those who were violated by religious institutions, whose homes were destroyed by progress, whose water is no longer fit to drink, who have not been welcomed by this “Canada.”
Many who had experienced Canada the way I had, for much of my life, expressed outrage and anger towards these ones. Their stories did not match our own. They were offended and could not believe that these stories could be true because their own experiences were true, and there cannot be two truths… can there? They reasoned that these stories must simply be, an attempt to place blame on those who have ‘made it’ in order to avoid working for their own betterment. Some acknowledged that maybe some of these things happened, but it was long ago and that these people need to ‘get over it’ and not ruin Canada Day with their pain and anger.
If you have ever sat through a memorial service and listened to the celebration of a life which does not reflect your own relationship with that person you will know how it feels to have your own experience ignored, rejected or minimized. The intensity of this feeling will vary depending on how disparate the public celebration is compared to your own experience. A large market of memoirs and biographies will attest to the fact that you are not alone in feeling the truth burning behind your lips, longing to come out.
It takes a lot of work to hold on to contradictions without dismissing, despising or minimizing that which does not match your own experience or relationship. When one story has been given precedence and told loudly and repeatedly for a very long time, balance looks like giving space and air time to hear the rest of the story. One story does not need to destroy another, it can build, refine, correct and enhance
Whether it is a memorial service for a family member, a graduation at a school, the honouring of a historical ‘hero,’ or the celebration of a national holiday, lets make room for all the stories, all the feelings, and all the experiences. Lets gather all the pieces of the story so that we can honour our history, our relationships and our experiences accurately and fully. Only then can we know what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost and what we can learn from. Only then can we know what needs to be mourned and what there is to celebrate.