When asking friends about what they wanted in a series on The Soul of Grief, I received numerous responses stating, “Real life stories.” People want to hear from others who have walked the walk of the journey of grief and how it has impacted them.
Today I have the special privilege to bring you, “A Grandson’s Eulogy” by Eric Mielke. Eric writes about his family honoring his grandfather prior to his Opa’s death. Eric Mielke is a 27-year-old blogger and adventurer extraordinaire. You can find Eric exploring and embracing life – or just enjoying conversation over a good cup of coffee. The following are Eric’s words:
A Grandson’s Eulogy
I didn’t know what to expect. I was getting on a plane, flying to California for a trip on the books for months. The Mielke’s were gathering for another family reunion, forgoing the usual destination of Pagosa Springs, Colorado for the familiar confines of Erich and Hilda Mielke’s home in Eagle Rock, California. A change in scenery wasn’t the only thing different about this Mielke reunion, though. This year, we gathered to celebrate and to prepare to say, “Goodbye.”
The Mielke family tree has branched out over the years. The Mielke’s entered the United States on March 20th, 1952; Erich, Hilda, and a soon-to-be-born, Manfred. Two months after their arrival, Manfred was born. After working off debts occurred in the immigration process at a farm in Michigan, the small German clan boarded a train bound for California. Shortly after, Erich and Hilda joined a German-speaking church in Highland Park called Immanuel Kapelle. After two years of attending, Erich accepted Christ into his life – a moment of great pride for Hilda.
After spending a year working at a lumber mill building doors, Erich found employment at Knudsen Creamery, a manufacturer and distributor of dairy product. Erich worked nights filling and packaging orders at the Los Angeles location for over 34 years. He retired without having taken a single sick day, while providing all he could for his ever-growing family. Four years after Manfred’s birth, the Mielke family tree would add two more branches; the twins, Walter and Lorenz. After their two youngest started Kindergarten, Hilda found work as a housekeeper at Occidental College. Hilda has often joked that she attended that fine institution for 26 years and left it without ever graduating.
Time -as it inevitably does – moved on. So too, did the Mielke’s. Manfred grew up, wed Jeanne Vogler, moved to Minnesota. Together they gave Erich and Hilda their first grandchildren, Monica and Diana. Their youngest son was the next to add a branch to the ever-growing tree. Lorenz married Sheri Black, moved to Colorado, and gave Oma and Opa their next set of grandchildren, Eric and Karl. Not to be left out, Walter (bald head and all) married Ruth Turnquist and they brought one more set of grandchildren into the California-Mielke fold, Alex and David.
Family was, and is, very important to Erich and Hilda. Having both grown up on small family farms in what is now Ukraine, the emphasis on family only grew as their children created families and lives of their own. The Mielke Family Reunions became something to look forward to – a chance to re-connect and spend time with family that had been scattered to the wind. The Reunion on May 24th of this year was scheduled to be more of the same, with the added bonus of celebrating Erich and Hilda’s 90th birthdays. Parties were planned, flights were booked, and the Mielke family prepared itself to celebrate the lives of its two eldest members in a way only the Mielke’s could – And then, everything changed.
When news of my Opa’s health reached me, I immediately grew anxious about the upcoming reunion. What was supposed to be a weekend of laughter and joy now had a pall hanging over it. There was a dark, uncomfortable undercurrent of knowing that when it came time to say goodbye – for one of us – those goodbye’s would be permanent. I didn’t know how to approach it – if I should be happy or sad – or this weird mixture of both. I boarded the plane with a heavy heart, filled with uncertainty.
The family had all gathered at Oma and Opa’s house for dinner and a private party. “We’ve been presented with a unique opportunity,” my father said. “We all know it, the elephant in the room. Pop is dying. And you know, when someone does die, everyone says great things about them and how special they were. But they are never there to hear it. So, I thought, with all of us here, we could go around and share memories of Oma and Opa. Actually celebrate the both of them with all of us here.”
Share we did. For a few hours, everyone recounted their favorite stories of Oma and Opa. His favorite sayings (“Opa, wie gehts?” “Aahh, the gate is closed and hinges are rusty!”), the songs he and Oma would sing to us all as children, bouncing us on their knees – the house was filled with laughter. Immediately, my trepidation about the weekend was gone.
It truly was a rare occasion, that we were able to celebrate Opa WITH Opa. To sing the praises of a man who refused to quit, who wanted a better life for himself, his wife, and his future family. A man who worked himself to the bone to provide a roof and food for his family, to provide stability and safety. This life was everything he and his wife hadn’t had growing up.
My father often refers to the story of Oma and Opa’s coming to America by saying they had “survived hell.” Their story could be called, “Inches and Alcohol”– with good reason. Opa was conscripted to fight for the German army on the Russian front. While in the service, Opa was shot by a Russian sniper. The shot, meant for his head, instead missed three inches to the right – hitting him in the shoulder. Medevaced from the front lines to a small town in Germany, Opa was reunited with his childhood friend, Hilda – who had survived multiple brushes with death.
Both Erich and Hilda had been fortunate enough to survive Stalin’s attempted genocide by starvation in Ukraine. Hilda and her family were forced to flee from Russian soldiers as they reclaimed German-occupied territory. It wasn’t long before the family reached the conclusion that the best chance any of them had was to take separate paths to freedom. A 21-year old Hilda found herself in charge of an infant, her nephew, with nothing but a baby carriage to her name. Through sheer luck, Oma and her charge found sanctuary, courtesy of a Russian guard who was more concerned with his alcohol than who could cross the literal bridge that stood between Oma, the Allied Lines, and her freedom. – The fact that the Mielke family tree even exists is nothing short of a miracle!
Sitting in the room with us that night, (or rather running around the room hopping on and off the furniture and telling stories all her own in a language only she could understand), was the newest branch of the Mielke Family Tree. Lyla born to Diana and Kris Koepp, daughter and son-in-law of Manfred, Erich and Hilda’s first Great Grandchild. In the living room that night – the living room that had three boys and six grandchildren – sat four generations of Mielke.
As I looked around at all the faces there, I couldn’t help but think, “Had that shot been three inches to the left – had the Russian soldier on the bridge been sober – had Oma and Opa not hidden and stolen food from Stalin – had they possessed and ounce less of dedication, of commitment to each other and to their children – that room would have been empty.”
Instead – Erich met Lyla – A man writing the final pages of his story and a girl just barely beginning hers – A story that would not have been possible had it not been for the dedication, the character, and the strength of a man she will never personally know. She will come to know him though, for theirs was not the only story in the room that night. She will learn of his strength from her mother – of his character from her grandfather.
That is Erich and Hilda Mielke’s legacy. It is more than the stories that filled the room that night. It is the lives they touched – The lives they molded and shaped throughout their many years on this earth – family and otherwise – and the lives those people will go on to touch.
When I was born, my parents gave me Erich’s name. I have always loved my Opa, but I never truly appreciated the man he was until that night – sitting in the living room – admiring the legacy he had created. The husband he was, the father he had been.
Erich Mielke was a great man in every sense of the word. His story – his legacy – lives on in his son, my father, and in me. It is all I can do then, as his grandson and namesake, to strive to honor that name in my actions as a man, a future husband, and a father. He has given me a wonderful template to follow. And if I can grow to be half the man my father and grandfather have been, then I hopefully will have begun to honor the name, Eric.
I am Kate Pieper, LMFT. The above is part of The Soul of Grief series. It is not intended as professional counseling, but encouragement for you in your journey. You can contact me at [email protected] or 530-268-3558. I am your reluctant tour guide through The Soul of Grief.