Every summer, through the entire vacation period, I would wake up around 7am. There was not a single day where I wouldn’t find him taking care of the birds, cleaning the birdcages, or feeding the little animals always accompanied by that small black AM-FM player. I was 5 or 6, but some of these images are still fresh in my mind.
My grandpa has always had this passion for birds, and building birdcages was both a hobby and a way to make a little money to make ends meet. Besides that, he was also good at healing those little beauties no matter what the problem was: torn wing? A mysterious illness? He would always find a solution.
Grandpa was a big man: not so tall, yes, but a man of large shoulders, strong arms and legs that still kept traces of the athletic figure he once held. His voice was strong as a thunder, and if necessary he’d make it rain had he understood it was necessary. Most of the time he was a peaceful man but, from time to time, rage would show up and scare most of us.
I recall some people calling him “Luis the mad man”. It took me a few years to understand why the nickname, but it turns out that, apparently, when he was younger he beat a man up almost to a point of no return. Some people say the man was a thief, others that he was an abuser (rapist?), but the truth is we will never know what truly happened. What we do know is that, right after this episode, he had to be institutionalized. Maybe despair, maybe regret. We won’t know, but history tells he would never be the same again.
Another fact is that grandpa was a keen craftsman. A skilled one, so good that there was this time a man crossed the state just to buy one of his birdcages. When this man heard the price of those beautifully handmade objects, he started laughing: how could it be so cheap? Well, it seems that my granpa didn’t know the value of his work (and most probably he didn’t believe his work had any real monetary value).
Another thing grandpa loved were watches. Besides a wooden cuco on his living room, I remember he would aways wear this huge silver wrist watch. It had this dark interior and you could see the machinary working on its back. I can barely remember seeing grandpa with an empty wrist: he would only take it off, I believe, during his afternoon movie session (he would watch a soap opera after his afternoon nap, followed by this “afternoon movie session” that this TV channel aired every day).
Grandpa, sitting on his couch, would take the watch off and shake it, left to right back and forth, as if his arm was some sort of pendulum. “I need to wind it”, he would say, “otherwise it won’t work well and we all know what a watch that doesn’t mark the hours means: life delay.”
I recall watching him with very attentive eyes and thinking: “what life delay means”? Can we actually be left behind by life? Well, maybe I didn’t use such refined words, that’s for sure, but I was in love with that very watch, and I wanted it to be mine. (What were the odds? I’m the 4th grandchild, and my dad had 3 sisters and 2 brothers by that time. But oh well, odds were there to be beaten, I understand).
Years passed. I stopped spending summer vacation at his house, I moved around a bit, left the city, the country, returned and, by the time we reconnected, a lot had changed. Two of his daughters had passed at an early age (I might write about that another time) and he was sick.
He developed some sort of lung problem that the doctors associated to his smoking habits (he’d stopped smoking a couple decades back) — sometimes I think he was just sad and tired of such a struggling life.
The company I was working for at that time had great schedule flexibility, meaning that I could afford taking my grandma to visit him every weekday. “People need to know we care”, she would say: “we don’t want your grandpa to feel we’ve abandoned him, so I must visit everyday”. She was one of the most incredible women I met so far, and probably this is something that will never change.
Through the year I spent visiting him at the hospital, we had the chance to discuss through a variety of themes. Most of it were trivialities, but I had the chance to know him much better and to tell him 3 very important facts: 1. That I loved him (and that I understood he loved me the day I came out as queer: he had nothing but respect towards me. no single word of reprehension or prejudice ever left his lips. ever), 2. that I appreciated the chance he gave me to be resilient, the bravery he shared and I used as shield and 3. that I would like to keep his watch as a dear memory, once he was gone.
He passed away in 2012. It was June, I believe, and I recall feeling both sadness and relief. Sadness that our daily meetings were over, and relief because he was finally freed from all that bodily suffering. A couple days after his departure we found out that my grandma was also ill, and in about a month we would also watch her go due as her liver stopped working. Tempestuous times those were. Along with their losses I also had my own challenges to deal with, and for some time I kind of forgot about the watch (which seemed to had vanished with grandpa).
September 2019. My wife and I were finishing our final arrangements to move to Berlin. I’d gotten a job here a couples month earlier and we were dismantling our apartment and getting rid of almost everything we owned. While amid donations and storage boxes I got a message from a dear cousin saying that he had found our grandpa’s watch. Apparently it was among some of the remembrances he’d kept and he’d remembered my grandpa wanted me to have it. Life is indeed full of surprises.
My grandpa’s grandpa was German. History tells that he left Germany at a young age to look for opportunities in Brazil. While travelling there, on the ship, he fell in love with a beautiful Russian woman and a few time after they arrived, my grandpa’s grandma gave birth to his father. It all happened in the early 1900’s, and since then nobody in our family had ever made it back to Germany. Not ‘till 2007 when I visited it for the first time. I was the first, came alone and back then I didn’t think about the intricacies of my ancestors’ history.
But now I know, and tonight I am able to look at history with a bit of maturity. Earlier tonight, my wife and I took my grandpa, through the presence (and legacy) left by his watch, out for the first time in Germany. The 3 of us went to see “Orlando”, Virginia Woolf’s play that goes about a young Victorian man, Orlando, that crosses 3 centuries barely ageing while experimenting on adulthood, sex, world exploration, writing, gender fluidity until the time he becomes a woman and gives birth to a girl. It didn’t strike me until we got back home.
I hope my grandpa enjoyed it same as I did, and also hope that it has freed him along with his ancestors, my ancestors, from a line of suffering and feeling of not belonging. In a manner of speaking we are all back home now. Within or in the outside, we are all home. And grandpa, I know there was love all the way through. And there always will be.