There are some people you meet in life whose stories go beyond your comprehension. So much suffering, so much trauma, and yet — and yet, the most amazing thing about them is that, in spite of all that, they are kind, hardworking, and nice. How can they be that way? How is it that they do not go through life bitter and angry, or demanding and expecting some recompense as their due?
My step-father is one of those people. He met and married my mother a few years ago, when he was in his 80s and my mom in her late 70s. Since that time, he has brought my mother nothing but happiness. They are wonderful to watch, and we all should be so happy when we reach that age. It is fitting – neither of them have had life hand them anything except hardship. Both were children during the Great Depression, but not here in America: my mother lived in a small mountain town in southern Germany, and my step-father in a small mountain village in southern Austria. Bare feet to school, little money or food. But while my mother had a family and a farm, my step-father had parents who left him to be raised by an aunt and an uncle in a two-room shack. He spent his years sleeping on a cot next to the stove, and learned to play the accordion at a young age so he could earn money, playing music on the streets. He still plays that accordion. I’ll never be the one to ask him to stop.
My step-father has many stories related to being a musician, some funny and some not. It was his playing that got him pulled into his first military service, in fact. At first, as a prisoner of war under the Germans, where he was subjected to violence and humiliation most people could not even endure. Then, when it was discovered he played the accordion, he was “recruited” into the German military, and became a soldier forced to play for an enemy he hated. Later, just as he was released near the end of the war, he became an American prisoner, and was transferred to a camp in the north of Germany. It was not his country, it was the country of people who had enslaved him, and yet he was a prisoner along with them.
Two years a prisoner, then after being released, he made his way back to his home town and eventually to America. He looked for and found his father, “living like a dog” in a garage. “You are not my son,” was the greeting he received. Later, he found his mother, and even had her come to live with him for a time, even though she told him, “I wanted to abort you.” It was a sense of duty that led him to care for her, and perhaps a little hope that she might come to love him. She never did though. He has spent his entire life knowing that his parents did not care for him, no matter what kind of person he had become.
His military days were not over, however. Soon after moving to the U.S., he received a draft notice. He was not a citizen; merely a resident, yet he was drafted into the Marines. An MP, he was asked to not appear on the drill field during inspections because he was too short and not the “Marine type” to be shown to dignitaries. He served his duty for two years without even being a citizen, and did so with integrity.
Despite all he went through, he married, suffered the loss of two children and raised two wonderful sons, whom I am happy to call my brothers.
These snippets are mere drops in an ocean of stories from a humble man who is kinder and more good-hearted than almost anyone else I know. How is it that he does not use his suffering as an excuse to be selfish, or violent, or bitter? So many of us do these days. We wear our suffering like beacons to demand sympathy, retribution, and free passes when we hurt others. We scream, “it’s not my fault!” when we fail through lack of effort. Why is that? What makes my step-father so different?
It was his choice, I believe. He chose not to give in. I listen to his stories so that I am reminded, I can be like him.