My English teacher recently gave our class an assignment to write about a specific memory in our lives. I immediately became excited, trying to wrack my brain of all of the important memories I had accumulated over my lifetime.
I sat at my desk for a while with a misty recollection and finally decided to write about my last meeting with my great-grandfather, Bennie, before he died.
In writing about this final moment with Bennie over the next few weeks, I slowly began to understand exactly why I chose to write about someone who I had barely even known.
I chose to write about Bennie, the known and the unknown sides of him, because when he died in 2004, it signified to me one more generation of family that I have lost and will never completely know.
As I wrote my memoir, I realize now that family is a broken concept. We don’t see how desperately we love people, how much we cling onto them for support to understand ourselves and our heritage, until they are gone.
My great-grandfather and my great-grandmother, Olda, who died before I was born, both had incredibly touching life stories. Bennie was a doctor for the South African Army during World War II and was captured by Italians in the Siege of Tobruk. He became a prisoner of war in Benghazi and escaped the night before he was to be transported to Europe by walking across the Libyan desert into Cairo.
Unfortunately for me, I learned all of this from a book. I wish I had known back then that these personal experiences were not shared unless relationships were formed. I took him for granted while he was alive, and while younger, I should have made more of an effort to recognize that the man whose lap I sat on, whose white-whiskered beard I touched, wasn’t going to be around forever. I never placed enough significance on those moments with him because I did not see or comprehend that life doesn’t last for everyone, and this deeply pains me.
Early childhood memories are understandably hazy for many. However, as we continue to grow older, it is important for us to seek out family members in an attempt to understand ourselves and our heritage. As many of us come from international backgrounds, we must not take our unique family perspectives for granted. I certainly wish I hadn’t with Bennie.
Bennie’s struggles during World War II helped me to understand that safety cannot be give guaranteed. He showed me that resilience and courage come from the character of a person and the situation they are placed in. I can only hope that when faced with situations like Bennie’s, where I cannot turn to others for support, but instead must look to myself, I will also take responsibility for my own well-being.
While many miles may separate us from our loved ones, losing my great-grandfather has made me realize that with the technology at our hands today, it should be much easier to contact those who do not live nearby us.
Maintaining these connections are important in understanding where we come from. Especially in my case, I have learned not only the strength of someone who is very dear to me, but also the need to seek out my other family members so I do not make the same mistake as I did with Bennie.