It was on this day ninety-four years ago, when the world was a very different place, that my beloved grandfather, Gunther Arthur Bodenheimer, was born in Heidelberg, Germany. Sadly, I only knew him for six years of my life, as he departed from this earth far too early at the age of 69. Nevertheless, it was enough for him to have made his indelible impression in my life and in my heart.
Most of my memories of my grandfather are fuzzy or vague at best, and some are only through old photographs, but nothing could ever erase how safe and loved he made me feel, how much I enjoyed being around him. I can still remember his kind and gentle face, and his warm and loving smile, his warm, deep brown eyes, and just his noble and loving aura.
I can still recall when he placed me on a giant turtle statue in the Bronx Zoo to take my picture one summer, I suppose that I must have been about three or four years old. There was also the time when he patiently helped me assemble my doll house and car. Or the numerous times he took me by the hand to go to the playground outside of the apartment complex where he lived with my grandmother. To me, he was amazing, he always seemed to be so calm and angel -like, but then again, what six year old girl doesn’t think that her grandfather is an angel?
And then there was the time we spent together reading. The reading! This was a particularly special bond that we shared. He would put on his thick reading glasses, hold me in his lap, and would read to me to my heart’s content. He wouldn’t even mind when I asked him to read me the same book, again and again, one right after the other. “Curious George,” “The Berenstain Bears,” “Caps for Sale,” and of course “The Giving Tree.”
According to my mother, I was his princess, the apple of his eye. Based on the old pictures that I’ve seen, I don’t doubt it one bit. He is always smiling in pictures with me, but with a deep smile, smiling not just with his mouth or his eyes, but you can see it in his entire face. He simply beamed in these photos, he looked so proud of me. All those years ago, the naïve child that I was, I felt so, so happy and safe and loved, and that nothing in the world was ever going to change that.
And then it was over. A few days after my sixth birthday, I have a brief recollection of attending his funeral and hugging his tombstone. Although I understood to an extent that my grandpa was not coming back, the real impact of his death had not yet fully hit me. It took a number of years before I was truly able to understand and mourn his passing, a gentle man who always seemed to be a real-life angel, who will sadly always remain somewhat of a mystery to me. After all, death to a typical young child is an unimaginable mystery indeed, an abstract concept.
It’s never been 100% clear to me what the specific cause of his death was. Several years later, as an adult, I learned that his health had been declining, and that he was on dialysis for his failing kidneys. In the end (once again, not completely sure why), it was his heart that gave out. But one of the circumstances about his death that I find most noteworthy is that, true to his character until the very end, he died reading a book.
Since July of 1989, piecing together his life (and also his death) has been like assembling a 1000 piece jig-saw puzzle without all the correct pieces, and with some random pieces from other puzzles mixed in. What I know for sure is that my Jewish grandfather was an only child whose family was fortunate enough to flee Germany just in time as Hitler’s power was rising to frightening levels. Most every fact after this has at least some form of discrepancy. Most of the details of the major events of his life for decades are unfortunately muddled and conflicting, leaving me with more questions than answers.
My mother has told me that they came to New York City in the early 1930s (but does not know the exact year) together as a family and lived in the Lower East Side, where my grandfather finished high school before enrolling in the US Army. His name was legally changed (and Americanized in the process) to George Boden. He earned his US citizenship (and a silver star in the process) by being sent back to Germany to work as a spy for the United States during World War II. However, during my last trip to my mother’s house, I happened to find a hand written document that stated that he had come to New York in 1939 (when he would have been too old for high school), after my great-grandfather, Herman, had escaped from the Buchenwald concentration camp. It also went on to say that he had helped with the construction of the Empire State Building as a metal sheet worker, though this would not make sense as the building’s construction had ended in 1931. Finally, at the end of the paper are three lone German words, “Deutsches Reich Protektora,” which I later discovered refer to the 1939 Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (quite the monkey wrench thrown in, indeed!).
In any case, it’s a shame that some things have to remain a mystery (wrapped in an enigma!). I have wondered, if ever given the chance, what I would do if I could spend just one more day with my grandfather. There is so much that I would want to know, to ask him. But if I were ever given that hypothetical opportunity, I would just listen. There’s absolutely nothing I could say to come close to expressing how much I truly miss him and his presence, even after all these years, so I would just listen. I’d also ask him to read with me again.
Though I honestly question my acceptance and belief in a creator god, I still feel that my grandfather is with me and always has been. It’s something that I cannot explain nor reason nor justify, but I just instinctively know. Just like the most important details of his life.
Years and years after his death, during a very dark and complicated period of my life, when I felt utterly lost and dangerously depressed to the brink of suicide, I found a clipping of paper that he had saved between the pages of one of his many books. I read it, reread it, and read it a third time before I started weeping uncontrollably. Here it is:
That was the kind of person he was.
Rest in peace, Grandpa. I love you and I always will. And I know that you do, too.