I have written before that life is a lot like a long journey to unknown destinations. Whether I am satisfied with my life is not determined by reaching expectantly planned final destinations, but by the journey itself. It is about the changes I encounter, and how they are dealt with. Which people cross my path, and the relationships that arise from it. As a result, some have an address book with more than 100 names, but with me there are only a dozen. I don’t need more contacts. At the moment I am also in an interesting phase of life. Not quite retired yet, but already out of work, I am young enough not to be old, and old enough not to be really young anymore. It often feels to me these days as if I am now making a stopover.
Before the corona pandemic, I often drove from Eindhoven to the Black Forest. I find such a 5-hour drive via the Autobahn quite relaxing. Mile after mile flashes by as the clock slowly creeps forward. A period in which you don’t actually create anything. You keep the accelerator pedal pressed, look carefully around you and in the mirrors, anticipate other road users and enjoy the view in between. I sometimes found myself quite sure I was paying attention, but I couldn’t remember what I’d seen a while ago, or what the traffic situation was like then. You then drive like a perfect machine on autopilot. That’s why I make a halfway stop at the Moselle. Again, a beautiful view, this time over a meandering river with terraces full of vines along the banks. A part of the route is behind me, with all possible frustrations about annoying situations. Before continuing, I relax, enjoy the tranquility and the panorama, and recharge my batteries.
That’s how it feels these days, as if I’m making a stopover in my life.
The moment when the past years and experiences pass in review, and the remaining trajectory lies ahead of you. That special moment when you take a deep breath, and consider how you want to proceed, at full speed, or rather more thoughtfully. Do you want, so to say, to make a phone call before you move on, or will you see how the trip goes. I now see more clearly who I was and who I have become. How my identity has developed and deepened. What my ancestry is, and who my progeny. Was there any point in taking this ride? Does it still make sense to continue?
I still remember very well how, as a child, I looked at my parents and my grandparents. These were figures who did not change, remained rock solid in the turbulence that my young life was going through. But each in a different way.
So my grandparents were old, without my imagining it.
It was sort of a label, like a price tag. I was in awe of them, even when they were having fun and laughing. And that, while they never punished or corrected me. In retrospect, I think I was afraid of losing their kindness if I didn’t behave properly. I was quite insecure about that, because what child under 10 knows what it means to keep your decency? You don’t learn what boundaries are until someone else tells you a few times that you’ve crossed them. My grandparents, in my view, were omniscient and untouchable. All in all, I had a good relationship with them, especially with the Grandpa and Grandma of the Dutch East Indies side, through (extensive) family gatherings, playing games and a lot of tasty food. All 4 of them were an undeniable factor in my life, and when they died of old age in my teens, it was just as natural.
My parents were not old, not like a Grandpa or Grandma. The parent-child difference had nothing to do with age, and as I discovered much later, would never really change. Both were just there, unchanging, and meddling much more actively in my life than my grandparents. Sometimes that was enjoyable, sometimes not. Usually they gave me something to hold on to, but there were times when I was stiff with tension if I hadn’t behaved properly. Afraid of punishment afterwards, while I already had suffered the direct unpleasant consequences of my behavior. Those were people whose sense of justice didn’t always match mine. I was dependent on them, on the other hand I didn’t want to be without them, so I just had to undergo their judgment. As long as I did my best, met expectations and didn’t stand out too much, everything was fine. As a child, you naturally also learn how to stay out of sight, while discovering the unknown world around you. What I did feel unconditionally was the love that existed between us, a natural certainty that I never doubted, and which I knew would hold up in any situation, no matter what conflict.
And now I’m Grandpa.
Well, biologically that’s not true. I have no progeny in that context. My genes have reached the end point in me. Perhaps they resemble me, and were too naive to seize the opportunities when these presented themselves. Which I actually think is fine. It’s by far compensated by a wonderful stepdaughter with two young lads who now call me Grandpa quite naturally. They live a bit far away, hence the stopovers on the Moselle, but there is definitely a relationship between us. For those two Buben I try to be a different Grandpa than I experienced myself. More active fun (with good food, of course), exciting crafts, experiencing adventures in the park, letting myself be worn out as a toy. Okay, sometimes boundaries are crossed. And then I’m like my own grandparents again… indulgent, handy enough to avoid the worst problems and turn the game in the right direction. I understand them, I recognize their journey of discovery, their curiosity and their inexperience. I also recognize (in outline of course, not the details) the relationship with their parents. And I already know how they look at a Grandpa.
As I got older, as a young adult, my life was in full swing. My parents had meanwhile become the new Grandpa and Grandma of the next generation, and I was the youngest Uncle, with enough time for my brother and sister to relieve them of their kids every now and then. My relationship with my parents also changed. The emotional parent-child difference remained, but the focus of my existence tilted. Where at first it was mainly their life of which I was a part, the emphasis shifted to my life of which they were a part. I took the helm of my life from them. Study, top sport and a very dynamic job absorbed all my attention, and my parents slowly moved to the sidelines of my daily worries. My world view was the future, and their world was one of an almost historical nature. It was the time when our contacts became significantly less, except for the few obligatory moments.
My “daughter” is now going through a similar stage of life. She is absorbed by her family, her job, the daily treadmill of everything that is expected of her, and then there are also the parents (including in-law and step-parents) to whom she has to report herself every now and then. I recognize and understand that situation because I myself as a childless bachelor have not even experienced it half as intensely. I now realize why my parents expressed their thanks when I visited again. I too do that now, simply because I know how few hours there are in a day at that age, and how much you want a moment just for yourself. Now I fully realize that at the time my parents were fully in the process of letting go, ever since their child sailed up the river of life in his own boat. They too must have had that feeling of a stopover then.
After traveling around the world, I met my soulmate and through her slowly found more peace in my life. I distanced myself more from what had so casually swallowed me, and the contacts with my parents became more frequent again. I suddenly discovered that in the meantime their lives had also moved on with new hobbies and activities. In fact, they had previously had a life I knew little about. How they had lived as children, the war years and their most dangerous resistance activities, their first meeting aboard a troopship to Australia, the promising years of the young family, the repatriation after Indonesia’s independence, a fresh start from the ground, work troubles, and the later development in the household of which I myself was a part. How they raised their children and what problems they faced. It became clear to me that they greatly stimulated and motivated me in many ways, and yet left me free. Then, as I walked with them down the road of old age, I saw new struggles and issues, but also their delight in watching the great-grandchildren, for example. Gradually they talked more and more about their own parents, so that those historical figures also became people of flesh and blood for me, even if they had died years earlier. It was only at this stage that my parents outgrew the part they had played in my life so far, and revived like a black and white photograph that you slowly colorize. Deep in my heart I wish I had finished that photo in time.
Here I am on my layover, whether or not I belong to the oldest generation. I don’t have any children of my own, but I’m happy with the young woman who feels to me like the daughter I wanted to have. I have fond memories of my nieces and nephews, now all young adults, and the few times I see them, I know that they, too, remember the relaxing vacations or sleepovers. Through work and sports, to many people I have passed on something of the warm nest in which I grew up. I liked to be a trainer or coach, helping others discover their own path. For a long time, my identity was an unclear theme, because I kept effacing myself, but gradually I let that go. How I turned out is all that matters. The journey was super interesting and educational, sometimes painful, but always satisfying in the end. It’s been wonderful to watch how that insecure young girl grew up into a captivating adult woman, and now watch the two boys on their journey through life. My acquired life experience colors all this with understanding, trust and support. It allows me to see myself a little through their eyes.
My parents must have had this same experience: because I’m becoming a bit disconnected from the next generations, I sometimes feel a sense of loneliness. Of course, I have a loving soul mate, and contemporaries in the same situation, but that disconnection feels a bit like a loss, like I’m leaving something behind. It’s that melancholy feeling when looking back at where you came from during a stopover, knowing that the Autobahn continues in the other direction. You realize that large parts of your life are a blind spot for the next generation. Your photo is still a largely monochrome image to them. If anything of me is left behind, it is now mainly the effect I had on other people. Deep inside me a small voice whispers that family of the next generations don’t really know me, although that actually would be nice. To be seen is above all to be understood. This is the cyclical rhythm of generations. That’s why my parents started telling me things, which made me ask more questions. That’s also why I know that after this beautiful stopover I just will travel on, so that the opportunity arises on its own. For myself, and the generations after me.