I used to think those golden days were enough for us. You know, those good ol’ days, with the good ol’ boys and girls… those simpler times that in hindsight, provide most of our rhymes. In my imagination, those days would look a lot like a combination of something I’ve seen or read about, mixed with stories from the elders in my life.
There’s Great Uncle Lou, Grandpa Roy, and Opa too.
And Great Aunt Bea, Grandma Leona, and Oma too.
And because of them… Father Dano and Mother Marion.
And because of them…Sister Coley and me too.
My grandpa Roy died when my father Dano was nineteen. Grandpa Roy, I’m told, was many people’s favorite uncle and friend. He was the fun one. The one that spent money on carnival rides and candy and liked to joke around without end. My father’s confirmed this, and has told me that it’s where he gets “it” from.
Father Dano’s always liked to play games, or get the cool new toys and gadgets that you really don’t need, but man, are they fun for a while. To give you an idea, his first date with my mother Marion was to go see the movie “Animal House.”
He’s wanted to be my band manager since I started playing guitar, and he says he’s my wing-man at the bars. He says he’s waited this whole time for my sister Coley and I to grow up just so we could have a drink with him. He’s still trying to cope with the fact that we’ve grown up and neither of us drinks all that much.
We went to Disney World every other year until I was thirteen because of his hard work.
Can you imagine?
That’s every child’s dream.
And it was.
It was a dream.
We waited in Florida’s ninety degree humid heat to get all the ninja turtle’s autographs.
I still have them.
We ate breakfast together every morning and played the guessing game as to which color monorail would come next.
For some reason, my father was a little too good at that game.
I remember those times as a collective period of joy in my life.
Lots of people, Lots of lines, Lots of walking.
I got motion sick on the rides, and I was terrified of them, so my mother and I would get ice cream and people watch, while my dad and sister would ride everything over and over again.
Sister Coley and I had our collection of stuffed animals to sleep with us at night.
When we’d get back to the hotel, the housekeeping would always arrange them just so, with a little chocolate coin to get us excited.
I remember the in-between time in the hotels putting on my mother’s swimsuit and doing a little dance to get a laugh.
I liked to make my family laugh.
I liked to put on a little show.
The “Ace Ventura” walk was my speciality.
As a family, we loved our time together at Disney World.
For me, it was all I knew.
It was normal.
The Meyer side of the family always speaks of grandpa Roy’s generosity.
I can see this in my father too.
My father’s generosity towards those he cares about is a source of inspiration for me.
He’s a business man.
He was forced to make his own way and make sure no sweet talking swindler led him or his mother astray.
I haven’t had to.
And that’s because of the life that he’s lived for himself and in turn, the life he’s lived for me.
Even though my father Dano’s proven himself to be successful, he’s never forced his own personal experience and understanding on me, he’s just simply supported me the way he can.
He does the whole family’s taxes, and at some point or another every relative has come to him for advice. He’s never bragged about or solicited his opinion. But if you met him, you’d know you’d want to ask him for advice. He’s his own person, and there’s no other option for him to see.
He just wants me to be happy and he’s always wanted me to do it my way.
Even if he doesn’t understand it, or doesn’t see how it’s unfolding.
He just lets me be me.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve never asked him for money. I’ve never asked him for anything in that nature. What’s been of monetary value in my life has always been given to me by my father. I just don’t feel the need to have too many things. At the moment, I have enough possessions to fit in a backpack, including my clothes.
One day, my mother saw me coming downstairs with a couple of plants I keep in my room and thought I was leaving again. I was really just bringing them outside to be in the warm summer air to finally get some rain on their leaves, but I thought it was funny how well she knew me.
Anywhere I’ve gotten to go and anything I’ve gotten to do has been because of my father.
His impact on my life is all encompassing and I am forever grateful. I am blessed, fortunate, lucky, call it what it’s usually called and that’s fine, but I’m only me because my father’s chosen to live the life he wants to live for himself. I am because he is. If he didn’t decide to be the person that he wants to be, living the life that he wants to live, I just wouldn’t be writing these words, in this way, at all.
Father Dano, I love you more than you’ll ever know.
I come from a line of greats. Strong, independent, don’t take any shit from anyone kind of men and women. Real movers and shakers. All of them with hearts made of gold.
A prime example being Father Dano’s mother, my grandma, Leona.
Sister Coley and I always referred to her simply as, “grandma.” The simpler, the better, according to Leona. Whenever grandma called and left a message on the answering machine, the only words she would ever say were, “Is anybody home?”
Really that’s it.
Every single time she called.
What else do you need to say?
She always had very few possessions, and even in her last days she didn’t want to ask for money.
We later found out that she didn’t even have enough for the bus.
Father Dano was downright baffled, but then again, I baffle him sometimes too.
It turned out that she was giving it all away to charities.
I think I know where I get my frugality now.
Leona thought she was born in 1917, but after investigating later, it turns out she was born in 1915. Leona came into this world and went pretty much right into an orphanage. Her mother died when she was four years old. Her father worked for the railroad company, so he was always away.
She lived there with her two sisters Marse and Marie and her brother Ray until she was eighteen. Later, Marse would play the piano at different clubs and apparently they’d all have a pretty wild time together.Leona was never much of a drinker though.
She always made it a point to speak her mind though, otherwise mostly keeping to herself.
After grandpa Roy died, she never remarried.
That last 40 or so years of her life she lived alone.
Every year, on the day before Christmas Eve, we’d go visit grandma at her condo on the north side of Chicago. I was just talking with my cousin Jenny about how the “fountain” that was in the hallway when you walked in grandma’s building, looked like it was out of a porno. The smell of that building and that elevator is something that is forever engrained. A little sweet, definitely musty, and a touch of musk.
I remember crawling around the condo with my cousins, shooting down those green plastic army men forts with rubber bands against my Uncle Terry, father Dano’s brother, and watching TV on grandma’s old tube style television. The kind with the antennas and knobs that gave a satisfying click with each channel change. It sat right on the TV tray that was apparently made for it, where grandma would keep her magazines and her TV guide that we’d bring her so she could do the crosswords.
Leona loved the color blue. Everything in her house was a different shade of blue. A royal blue leather armchair, a light blue couch, a pale blue recliner. Even the Christmas tree was blue with different shades of blue ornaments. It felt calm in there and you’d think it’d feel cool with that blue, but she always cranked the heat to what felt like ninety degrees, so we were sittin’ in T-shirts in December.
I still remember that last time I saw her alive.
She was on the hospital gurney being rolled into a different room and she had the oxygen mask on so she couldn’t talk. She just didn’t want to be there. She looked at me as if to say “Get me out of here.” I know she never liked the hospital but I still wonder why she really didn’t want to be there.
In my heart, my feeling is that she just liked her peace. She found that stillness within herself, and that was her place of peace. I imagine getting pulled into the hospital was a jarring event, with all the noises, commotion, and people running around everywhere. I never felt upset by the way she looked at me, I just really felt for her. But I knew everything was happening the way it should. A few weeks later I had a dream where grandma and I were sitting side by side on a couch somewhere with a group of people. We didn’t say any words to each other, as we never really did, but we just leaned in and touched our heads together.
I woke up knowing and feeling that everything was as it should be.
Great Uncle Lou was always like a grandfather to me, even though he married in to the family. He always said that he wanted to be a Meyer. He married my great Aunt Bernice, Grandpa Roy’s sister, in his forties, after a coworker, who was Bernice’s choir director introduced the two. That man asked Lou if he wanted to meet a nice woman, and he said… “No.”
What a guy, eh?
Always an opportunist for the humor in any situation.
He’s always told me to wait until I’m in my forties to get married.
So far so good, Lou.
Bernice was grandpa Roy’s sister. They were two of six children, Harold, Richard, and Roy, the boys, and Gladys, Bernice, and Joanne, the girls. I’ve always called her Bea.
She’s one of the gentlest and kindest souls I’ve ever known.
She’d have to be, to put up with Lou. She was always right there with him though, making sure he didn’t get away with anything. They were a comedy duo, those two. They’d finish each other’s sentences and always poke fun at the other. But it was never mean spirited.
You could see how much they loved each other.
They were happily married for 56 years and traveled extensively.
They even visited every state in the U.S. and traveled to Europe twenty-four times.
Bea’s responsible for keeping the family together. She’s traced her history as far back as she could, taking it upon herself to make sure everyone knows where they came from. Lou passed away this passed January, and Bea is now on her own in the house they moved into in 1980. She jokes around that now she actually has to do the laundry. It’s a point on the Meyer side of the family where I’m starting to wonder who’s going to keep things moving. To me, Bea is the brightest light in the family, and I will miss her so much when she’s passed. She puts me at ease with her presence, and never has a bad thing to say about anyone. She was never too much for words either, and so what I have from Bea is a feeling that I’ll carry with me wherever I’ll go.
Lou liked to talk though, so I’ve got more words for him in return.
Great Uncle Lou was a veteran of U.S. army. He was there for the Normandy invasion, and as a part of the battle of the Bulge. I wouldn’t hear too many stories from him about the war, or his life. Instead, he exemplified a way of living, and a way of being that had everyone noticing, and everyone laughing at themselves.
His spirits were sky high all the way to age 96. In his last few years, he and Bea would still drive to California to see family and play some golf. He was active pretty much up until the day he died. He enjoyed working with stained glass and restoring old furniture, which he gave as gifts to friends and family. He was always active around the house, even getting up on the roof in his old age. When he finally lost momentum, he went into the hospital and two days later he passed away.
My mom thought he recognized how much my dad’s mother, my grandmother, Leona, hated the hospital in her last days, and so she thought Lou just wanted out, but I think he just used every ounce of his potential until it was spent.
He was sippin’ through the straw, sucking it all up, soaking it all in. Here was a man that exemplified something I just didn’t see in anyone else. Not a single soul.
The man had enthusiasm.
Enthusiasm for everything around him, and most importantly, every soul around him.
He really had a way of making you look at how serious you took yourself.
In my eyes, most people were too preoccupied with and within themselves. Too busy with their own lives, with their own dimes, own ideas, and my oh my how there’s just never enough time! It seemed like the world functioned off of complaints. Like the lingo on the street that you had to know was only filled with struggle. How impossibly hard life is! And how impossibly hard life had to be! Pull yourself up by your boot straps, you only get somewhere through sweat equity and hard work. Blood, sweat, but no tears. An endless locomotive chuggin’, chuggin’, chuggin’… until it gets to its destination, and once it’s there, it looks around and thinks, “Well now what?”
But at least you get to wear the badge right?
The badge that allows you to go around telling everyone you did it,
and follow it up with, “So, what have you done?”
With Uncle Lou though, he never talked of anything like that. Not with me anyway. He was always in the moment. Talking about what happened to him yesterday or the day before, and who he joked around with, or who he made the subject of his jokes. He was always there to listen too, never taking himself so seriously.
He even made it a point to carry around candy in his pocket on the off chance that he’d cross paths with a child.
Somehow, I got most of that candy too.
Lou’s influence on me was combined with my Opa, Herbert. Herb’s story brings him to the U.S. of A at the tender age of 4, from Germany. He was raised in a German family, in a German household, where they spoke…you guessed it, German. So at the outbreak of WWII, Herb was drafted and served as a soldier and translator for the Americans. He came in on a glider for the Normandy invasion too. Father Dano says that Roy, Lou, and Herb were all at Normandy at the same time.
Herb knew the language of the enemy, so he was always looked upon with those skeptical eyes. But he had a trick. And this trick he could carry with him in his pocket…
The magic of music.
He would tell me stories of being on stage and entertaining the troops with his harmonica until his lips were numb. They’d call out songs and he would play and play and play. Some of those tunes like “Sentimental Journey,” I’m thinking I’ll learn now, so they can keep entertaining those ears who recognize their worth.
Somehow in the midst of a world war, Opa met a German P.O.W. who upon crossing a bridge in Germany, recognized my Oma on her bicycle behind the truck that Opa was driving. That man called out to Oma and asked how the family was and if anyone was still alive. Later that day, Opa brought him to Oma’s family’s house, something he could’ve gotten into serious trouble for if anyone found out. He convinced the family to let Opa upstairs, because he spoke German and he brought him there despite the danger.
The rest is history.
Lore was only 15 at the time, and her and Herb wrote letters for 4 years until she decided to come to the states, get a house, marry, raise 3 kids, 4 grandkids, and now 1 great grand baby.
Oma stands at about 4’ 6” tall these days. She has osteoporosis and it forces her to hunch over, making her seem even sweeter when she looks up at you to give you a kiss. Leaving her family in Germany at the age of nineteen was the hardest decision she had to make. But she made it, and because she did, she also made 8 other lives happen because of it.
She’s never been one for being selfish anyway.
To this day, she’s Opa’s sole caretaker as they still live together in the house they moved into in Chicago, more than 60 years ago now. The furniture is the same, the smell is the same, but it’s the neighbors and neighborhood that’s starting to change. They moved into a then German part of the neighborhood, bought a house, and never left. Other than the couple of times that Oma visited her family back in Germany, she’s been in Chicago the whole time.
Oma’s famous for her cooking, her cleaning, her gardening, and her memory. Growing up within the tradition and requirement of cooking meals every night for the family, I’ve seen Oma over the stove more times than I can count. She would make everything by hand of course. Spätzle was one of my favorites of hers. It’s a type of dumpling or noodle that is made from egg and boiled to form a soft and chewy consistency. Oma would make them by hand, a process that required every little bit of patience and focus that she had. Alongside her streusel cake, mini chocolate chip cookies, and mama’s brot, she would make dinners that the rest of the family still uses on a daily basis. Somewhere in the family we have detailed recipe cards for everything she made, so the rest of us can keep up with her.
Oma came into this country not knowing too much English, so she prides herself on the correct pronunciation of words. Combined with the influence from her father, she runs a tight ship. It no doubt comes from her German roots, but I’ve never seen anything in her house that was in a place it shouldn’t have been. It’s neat and tidy and everything is exactly as it should be. Which is why its always fun for me to visit with my shoes made of string, my long hair, and my facial hair. Not that Oma would judge, but she can’t resist the urge to clean me up.
Neither Oma nor Opa ever forced anything on any of their children or grandchildren. I’ve always been comfortable speaking my mind, being myself, no matter what I looked like. Sure, it’s fun when she thinks I look just like Jesus, but I’m still always Mikey. My mother Marion speaks of having very tolerant and supportive parents.
They were always a family first, before anything else.
Oma has always been open minded, regardless of where she’s come from and what she’s seen. My uncle Mike, Oma’s son, was surprised when Oma told him she liked the Pink Floyd record he was playing in his room back in the 70’s.
Opa’s a creative soul. He liked to paint, and even got a chance to take a class at the Art Institute in Chicago to refine his craft. He was on his way as an artist when the war broke out. When he returned home from the war, he went to trade school and worked his way up the ladder as an apprentice from painting people’s closets, to painting people’s houses. He continued that job all the way to retirement. He still painted every once in a while for enjoyment and his landscapes hang in their house.
At the ripe age of ninety-two, Opa’s still a jokester. He’s made his way through this life with one-liners and funny faces. One of the earliest pictures of Opa and I is of us making faces at each other. I knew his language from the start. I’ve always felt a connection with him that doesn’t require any words. I never had to do anything around him.
I have pictures of him playing the harmonica, and uncle Mike made a book about him in college and has recorded video of him telling his stories about the war. But it’s the thought of him on stage in the middle of a forest somewhere playing harmonica to hundreds of soldiers that is the lasting image in my head.
I’m a lucky man to have both of my grandparents on my mother’s side still alive. I get to visit them at least once a month now, since my mother and I bring them their groceries, as it’s getting too hard for them to leave the house. Sure they’re getting older, and they’re dealing with new physical ailments and complaints, but the most beautiful part is getting to watch how they are with each other. In my lifetime, I’ve never seen them so close. I imagine moving to a new country and starting a family right away puts certain priorities in place. Now, with fully grown adult children and grandchildren, they’re completely on their own. Opa needs Oma to take care of him, and Oma loves having someone to take care of, even if she wouldn’t admit it.
They’re in their element, and from my observation, this is their time to have together. They’ve been through a world war, food shortages, big booms and baby booms, but now they just have each other. It’s a bond that none of us in the family can touch.
But if we look real close, we can see how that bond touches us.
I sometimes get lost in my own head, thinking that I have to leave a mark. But I’ve noticed it’s the littlest things that get passed on. The things where you don’t have to try at all. The things that are just happening because you’re responding to your needs and wants as an individual.
Grandpa Roy has inspired me without me ever seeing him in the flesh.
Grandma Leona reassures me that I have everything I need.
Great Uncle Lou proves life is meant to be enjoyed,
And Aunt Bea agrees with gentlest of ease.
Father Dano lets me be me,
And I’ve gotten to see Oma and Opa start a family.
They have all inspired me,
Made it possible to be me,
Not because they tried to help me,
But because they were just living their lives
In a way that allowed me to be me.
July 8, 2014
Eleven days ago, Opa passed from this life to the next. I drove mama, we picked up Oma, and we were there about an hour after he left. The windows were open, the air conditioning was on and there was a sense of peace that I’ve never felt before.
The lasting image I’ll have is of Opa’s head slightly turned over to the right while Oma leaned over the bed and put her head on top of Opa’s while she held his hand. It was almost as if Oma’s bent back was meant for that moment, placing her shape perfectly with his.
I sat in a chair, next to the bed, facing them with my eyes slightly closed, at peace.
Feeling blessed to witness.
September 1, 2014
Thinking of what to write for the first story made me realize that my story couldn’t happen without the stories before mine. If I start to think about how far back that really goes, I eventually see that we are all made of the same things.
We are all connected.
We are all being beings.
It is in this spirit that I wish to begin this new adventure.
It won’t happen without you.
Let’s see where we can go together.
I can’t wait to read your story.
So much love,