Turning Wolves Inside Out
As a kid, my Opa Richard was larger than life. In my eyes he had this strange celebrity status; I mentally equated him with John F Kennedy. A strong, commanding figure with a thick head of hair that rivalled Elvis’ and a face that belonged in the black and white snapshots of history books.
He was the first relative to see me after I was born and the first to visit me at the hospital when I made an ill-fated attempt to swallow a nickel. As a child, he built my cousins and I a playhouse in his backyard. As an adult, he sold me my first home.
He lived just around the corner from my parent’s house and was an integral part of my life.
Opa had a lot of funny quirks. He hated the Queen and made a point to announce that he wouldn’t go visit her “if she was over in the next cul-de-sac”. He threatened to disown anyone in our family who listened to Mick Jagger, lamenting how “that idiot is paid to dance on a stage like a monkey”. He’d repeatedly go by himself to those photobooths in the mall and snap a string of wild-haired photos. When we asked him to, he grew out an enormous beard and looked almost exactly like Sadaam Hussein.
All of us cousins used to put on little shows for the adults – magic, drama, dance – and then pass around a metal, golden apple to collect our fee. We saved this for years, making grandiose plans as to how we’d spend it. We visited once to find the money completely gone. Opa had gone out and bought the most obnoxious boombox we’d ever seen with it, blasting German Volksmusic through the house at decibels we could hear from our place around the corner.
And he could surprise you. Our entire family was shocked to find him defying his firm Baptist roots, lured to the dance floor by my cousin Kayla for a spirited rendition of twist-n-shout. It wasn’t his kind of dance, but for an 80-something, he could really move.
He loved to find a joke or story to tell and would recount it with a smirk and a gleam in his eye that gave away the punchline before he could say it.
When we were young, Opa used to tell us a story about his Dad, whom he lost when the soviets stormed their farm in Russia (the reason he would never cheer for Ovechkin). According to his legend, his Dad was once out in a field when a wolf came and attacked him. Without so much as a flinch, his Dad plunged his hand deep into the wolf, grabbed its tail and turned it inside out.
As a child, I firmly believed this was true. I believed Opa could do it too, if he tried.
I thought he was invincible.
When we were really little, he’d throw his hat into an open fire, wait for us to scream about it – then reach in and pull it out with his bare hands. We were amazed every time – who was this man who could feel no pain?
When he was 84 years old, he was still roofing sheds. On his own. I’ll never forget waking up one morning last year to the sound of scratching on my roof, going out my front door and seeing my octogenarian grandfather on a 20 foot ladder using a crowbar to clean my eaves trough. He was an unstoppable force.
But Opa was not always an easy man.
Having left Russia without his father to build a life here, Opa was fiercely critical of anything he perceived as a waste of money. He had an iron will and a way of doing things that you would question at your own peril.
My first-ever attempt at mowing a lawn was his. I nearly left in tears when he shouted down at me, asking if I was blind (I missed some rather obvious strips) and commandeering the lawnmower to do it himself. Years later, after spending hours mowing his lawn while he was away, he phoned me to tell me it was the best he’d ever seen. This felt like winning the lottery. His approval mean the world. His disappointment was crushing.
He was a handyman, but you couldn’t ask Opa how to do things. He assumed everyone should be able to figure it out, especially since he, a German immigrant with a “4th grade Russian education”, had no problem. His criticisms could be harsh whenever he felt like you were being too loose with funds or too lazy to do a job the “right way”.
We sometimes questioned if he was bipolar, as this pointed fury could unpredictably evaporate into an extraordinary kindness and demonstrations of love. After I bought my house, he locked himself away in my garage, insulated the entire thing and hung cabinets without me even asking him to.
He just knew I’d need them, and couldn’t build them myself.
A Hard-Earned Legacy
Some of you may be surprised that I am recounting some less than flattering things about this man I so deeply respected. But you need to understand – this was an integral part of who he was to his family – a sometimes cantankerous presence that was often a point of both humour and frustration.
He came with bristles, strong opinions and an invulnerable stubbornness, yes.
But when you turn the wolf inside out, you quickly find that his was a soul that would give anything for the safety and security of his family. There was a love there that didn’t always know how to express itself.
He was a builder. He laid our foundation. It was no coward’s work. He took immense pride in it – and in us. He was affirmed when he saw us succeed, needed to see us level headed and making wise decisions. And for every barb and thorn, there was a moment of gentleness and a wit that would come alive when he told a story or played a joke.
Near the end of his life, someone asked my Opa what I did for a living. He replied, with what I can only imagine was his characteristic smirk, “I have no idea, but I believe he’s doing well.”
The End of an Era
Yesterday, I stood by my Opa’s bedside as he finally lost his battle with lung cancer. It was surreal to hear the slow winding down of the oxygen machine, the pump rising and falling for the last time, the strange quiet as the birds who had somehow still been chirping at 10:00pm went suddenly quiet, as if on cue.
He was strong-willed until the end – a man who wanted to live on his own terms and die on his own terms. They had brought a hospital bed to his house. In one last hilarious act of defiance, he more or less refused to go near the thing. It was not what he wanted.
He breathed his last at home, in his own bed surrounded by his children. I was able to see off the man who was among the first to welcome me here. I choose to believe that after arriving in heaven, he shook hands with his Dad before giving God a hard time for how he’d laid all of the shingles.
Long Live the Patriarch
A few months ago, in an attempt to immortalize my Opa in some meaningful way I created this painting.
His legacy to his family is enormous. He used his personal success to help kick start others – especially his grandchildren. It hangs in the front entrance of my home – the home he helped make possible through his generosity. It will remind me of him every single time I open that door.
He may be gone, but the impact he’s had will spiral through generations.
Thanks for everything, Opa.
I’ll miss you.