Nils Voss, 1908-2007

posted 27 November 2007

I hesitate a bit to write this memorial so soon after a similarly sombre post, but we cannot choose when we die, and it would be a huge injustice to deny my grandfather this, my own personal form of mourning and memorial. I also hesitate because, truly, I know so little about him.

Who was my grandfather, really?

The image of grampa that is stuck in my brain is the one that will be familiar to almost anybody who knew him: in worryingly short shorts and a shirt-jack, sitting on his porch next to the pool, with a rum in his hand and a laugh on his lips. "Remember to speak up, your grandfather is a bit deaf," I remember mom telling me, as I suppose she had told me every time we visited until I was old enough to remember it from one visit to the next.

We weren't close, but there's no blame to place for that. He was a man from a different era -- 1908! Never mind mobile phones or the Internet, or even television and jet engines, he was born before tanks were a feature of war, before helicopters flew, before anybody had seen a crossword puzzle. By 1981, when I was born, he was already a time-traveller into a radically different world. But until very late in life he was still active and engaged with the world, playing golf and keeping up with current events. To a combination of amusement and amazement from the family, he even had an active romantic life: women usually outlive their husbands, so he had a veritable harem of elderly widow companions.

I never really knew much more about him as a person, just factoids about his life: he left Germany in his 20s to work at the local arm of a coffee company. He met and married Margaret Rose, daughter of a reasonably wealthy local businessman. In a way that seems strange now but was unremarkable then, upon her father's death he inherited control of the company, and thereafter managing the company was what he did -- well into his 80s.

And beyond that I struggle. Was he good at managing the company, or just competent? What kind of a father was he? What was his relationship with Margaret like? (She died when I was still very young, and I don't remember her.) What was he like with his kids? His children were all sent away to boarding school -- it seems an act of cruelty now, but was it just the best option available?

The last time I could have asked these questions of him was several years ago. His illness was very sudden. One morning he was alert and capable of managing a company, the next he was confused and disoriented, and his memory began to fail rapidly. The last few years, his quality of life -- though physically comfortable -- was poor: he was always confused, irritable. "I'm ready to go," he would say. And now, at 99, he is gone, in what can only be a release for him.

He has left behind children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all generally successful and healthy and happy in our new world. His name lives on, and his memories and his values. He has done well.

Goodbye, grampa.

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