I, of course, didn’t know Opa until he had retired to Florida in a house just a third of a mile from where we also moved when I was six months old. I wouldn’t have picked up the information that he had earlier lived in St. Martin, Aruba, New York, Paris, and Cairo until I was at least a few years older, but relics of these past lives were everywhere in that tract home on Selby Drive—from a dinner gong to gilt-edged mirrors to the curvy armoire in the guest bedroom. It was these objects that made the most vivid impressions on me as a kid. The den at the front of the house was a veritable treasure trove: the oil portrait of Oma, the writing desk and letter opener, the camel saddle, and the cow bells and various tchotchkes on the bookshelves. Each time I visited I did a physical survey, scanning the shelves, tinkling the bells, turning over a six-sided clear acrylic picture frame in my hands.
All this stuff was downright exotic; to a kid growing up in the deep suburbia of southwest Florida it may as well have been plonked down from outer space. This was, of course, long before the Internet put the whole world in the palm of your hand. Coincidentally, Opa’s den also held a physical copy of that era’s Internet: a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. This was a nod to the importance of intellect and knowledge and, in the pecking order of reference materials, a step above the World Book Encyclopedia they had at my elementary school library.
If there was a whiff of pretension about those encyclopedias—or about any of the aforementioned objects—its smell was sweet. Pretension has negative connotations, but it’s the grease on the wheels of social and economic mobility, and I think Opa knew that. He also deserves credit for it. I spent hours on the floor of that den working on school reports with an open volume from his shelf, his house serving as both a literal and figurative reference library for me for a world outside of Fort Myers.
When I was a teen, Opa’s time working abroad and his multi-linguism also impressed me. I was resentful French hadn’t been passed down to my father and then to my sister and me, although there was admittedly nothing to stop me from learning on my own other than a tin ear and a lack of discipline. I like to think my own globetrotting adult existence owes something to his legacy, and I always got the impression he approved of—even took pleasure in—my choices, including my British husband. There was a rapport between Opa and D., a sort of mutual recognition of a fellow bon vivant. D. always looked forward to visiting Opa and being offered an ancient liqueur as an aperitif or digestif, depending, as Opa explained it, on the time of day. When I wrote postcards on vacation, Opa’s was the only one for which D. commandeered the pen.
Some years ago when D. and I were living in the UK, we were given the set of keys to a vacant apartment in Paris. We took advantage of our good fortune as often as we could, and one of the routines we most enjoyed was going for lunch on Rue Cler. It’s a pedestrianized street filled with produce stalls, specialty food shops, and the kind of outdoor cafés where all the chairs are facing out for maximum people watching. It’s also quite near the Eiffel Tower and, in my head, where Oma and Opa lived when they lived in Paris. I’m not sure where I got the idea—maybe the neighborhood was pointed out to me on a childhood visit to Paris with my parents or, more likely, it’s just something I heard over the years. In any case, as we made our way to Rue Cler on each visit I always pointed out a particularly beautiful stretch of mansion blocks to Douglas and said “That’s where Oma and Opa used to live.” Whether or not they ever did is beside the point. Even in that tiny den at the front of his house in Fort Myers, Florida, he managed to open up the whole world to me.
When Opa sold his house and moved into the nursing home, most the totems of his past life were dispersed amongst us. The cowbells and camel saddle now sit in my own den in California and, judging by my niece’s interest in the bells on a visit a couple of years ago, still hold the same allure for kids. On my visits to Opa in recent years, I always saw him in the common area of the nursing home—a pleasant enough environment but one stripped of the context his possessions had provided. The last object of his that I ever saw was a small rectangular painting he had made through an art program at the facility: a picture of a palm tree on an orange background set somewhere in the West Indies. He must have been thinking of going home, and it’s comforting to know he finally arrived. He will be missed.