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21 Sep 2009

What I Learned From My Grandparents: My Opa, Pierre Repping, Was...

My Opa, Pierre, was an inarticulate Dutchman whose hands created marvellous gadgets, could fix anything, were pretty skilled at painting, and crafted elaborate grandfather clocks. He had been an instrument maker for most of his working life. When I was a child we spent hours and hours in his garage, making wooden swords, go-carts, and half a hundred other projects.

He had a love for pancakes stuffed with ever more obscure ingredients and initiated me into the sacred Dutch tradition of cheese obsession, with which I am still losing my battle!

Even though we had a great time together I didn’t find it easy going because his incredible skill with tools and his fathomless practical imagination were both qualities that had passed me by completely.

Tall and robust, he was so this-worldly, so concrete, so confident in his presence as a human being. Whereas I tended to feel other-worldly, alien, and my hands simply do not have the craftsman’s touch. In some ways we rather passed one another by.

I guess part of why I felt generally alienated was that so much of my immediate ancestry was Continental European in a country (Australia) that tends to think of its colonial history mostly in terms of Anglo-Celts. I always felt different and strange from these funny people with their UK forbears. In a sense he was part of the cause of the very otherworldliness that divided us!

When I was a teenager and young adult I spent a lot less time with him, locked in battle with my own personal giants and trolls. I didn’t xenical slimming pill know how to find purchase in this world; his immediate practicality seemed boring and worthless to me.

I had this ability to articulate thoughts and feelings that was beyond him, for all his practical genius. And yet I didn’t know how to use it – there was no precedent in my family that I could find.

I was wrong to reject his way of being, of course; we were just different. I think he understood that difference and felt sympathy for my struggles, even though ultimately they were so different to his own that he could only really be a bystander.

Opa had been a pretty horrible husband and father; he used to go into terrible violent rages and while he was a marvellous grandparent he also succeeded in hurting my Oma, my mother, and my aunts terribly. I don’t think any of them were all that sad at his passing, and he fairly earned their ire.

He was a fallible human being, and he tried to make amends for his awful acts with his grandchildren, to whom he was infinitely loving. I can’t excuse his behavior in the least, but in one sense it taught me about consequence, and compassion for the suffering of others, and I’m a better person for both those lessons.

After he died he left me an antique pocket watch. I realized it was his final message to me, something that he could never say in words: this life is all you have, so get on with it. That gift to me was his way of saying that for all the years of my life he had seen how I struggled to exist in this world and had done everything he could to initiate me into it.

It meant a lot to me to realize that, even though he didn’t know how to help, he recognized the struggles I was locked into and felt for me. With the pocket watch he finally found a way to communicate to me this open secret he had held for my whole life – and he was right to make it a posthumous communication because I might not have understood while he was alive, I might not have really dwelled deeply enough on the nature of the gift.

I guess now I am really trying to take up his challenge, in so many ways. It isn’t easy but I’ve learned to accept, that in some respects, I just am from the land of the elves or another star or something; that is just how I experience life. But here I am, right smack bang in Midgard, and so this is the life I choose and embrace.

You see, the thing is that although he is gone, he is still with me. His spirit checks up on me periodically. I’ve even had his presence independently confirmed by a medium – who I didn’t give any forewarnings or clues. It’s pretty classic that Opa, who was such an instinctive existentialist, carries on after death.

He always had a funny sense of humor and sometimes he moves things from where I’ve left them and hides them – I think he does this to snap me out of my everyday hypnagogia, to make me remember that I am alive and that this is this. In life, of course, he was very fastidious and could never abide or comprehend my ability to generate mess!

Here is the marvellous irony of our relationship: now that he is no longer of this world he has found some effective ways to help me be of this world. I imagine that his confident, practical mind has no trouble navigating whatever afterlife he now lives within; I really should ask my cousins if he has visited any of them, but of course they’re all very much atheist or Christian and I don’t think they’d be too open to such a conversation.

Opa himself was a staunch atheist and I really admired that about him – it was such an extension of his this-worldliness, he regarded other people’s concern over the afterlife with a gentle, unexpressed contempt. In a way he was like an instinctive Heathen – to me Heathenism has a strong this-worldly streak, even though it also has its mysticism and mysteries.

I think he might have loved the crafty end of modern Heathenry – his adoration of all things hand-made was very anti-modern really. His handiwork would have been hugely popular at Heathen gatherings I am sure.

I treasure his stories of Europe before World War Two. He told me that there was a time when everyone walked to work. Hundred of workers would all march to their jobs together, all singing. Every morning the streets of the town in which he grew up were filled with voices…these incredible, impromptu community choruses.

Modernity brings some good things, but it is also sobering to think how much we have lost with our barren highways, filled with hermetically sealed commuting automobiles.

I wonder, now that he is dead, how he feels about the terrible things he did to his immediate family. When I talk to my mother about his miserliness, his arbitrariness, his violence, the way his fury turned my Oma alternately to be his accomplice or his victim, I am filled with anger. She and my aunts are still peeling away the psychic scars.

I wish he’d act, now that he is free of the bounds of his worldly being, to aid their healing and repair at least some of the stains on his heart. Perhaps he has, perhaps he is.

Whatever the case, he has taught me this: ancestor worship takes more than blind idealization of the past. It also requires that we take our predecessors’ mistakes head on, call them on their ill deeds, so that the knots in the weave of the family wyrd can be released into new life.

He always seems so playful, light, laughing when I encounter him now. Thinking about him makes me realize that I don’t call on my immediate ancestors enough – I get so obsessed with this or that god, yet the gods are only very distant ancestors really.

It feels really good to know that he is still in my life. I wonder if he’ll stick around long enough for us to meet on the other side, or whether he’ll go off before then to do whatever it is that you do when you are dead.

Story by H. A. Laguz.

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