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This Christmas Carol Brought Him Closer to His Grandfather

He didn’t have much in common with Grandfather Jurgen—except for their love of music.

Illustration of music notes; By Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbuttel

One of the first Christmas carols I learned by heart was “O Tannenbaum,” a beloved German folk song written in 1819 as a tribute to the enduring beauty of the country’s evergreen fir trees. The original German lyrics made no mention of Christmas, but I was too young to pay much attention to the words back then. What I found more satisfying was the joy I saw in my mother’s face every time I sang the old song. “That’s your grandfather’s favorite carol,” she’d say.

It didn’t surprise me that Grandfather Jurgen would like a song celebrating Germany’s towering trees. He was as strong and dependable as any one of them, and deeply proud of his heritage. He’d emigrated from Germany when he was a boy and worked on farms into adulthood. Robust and energetic, he hadn’t been sick a day in his life. He seemed forever unapproachable, especially to the sickly young boy I was. Sports and the like were forbidden to me. Instead, I spent my days in quiet pursuits, reading, singing (my favorite activity) and learning the piano. I was sure Grandfather Jurgen saw me as weak, though it was impossible to tell. He rarely showed any kind of emotion. I simply accepted that I’d never measure up to his expectations.

The one thing we did have in common was a love for music. When we visited my grandparents at their home three hours south of where we lived in Chicago, Grandma would play Chopin and Strauss on the piano while Grandfather looked on approvingly. I didn’t dare play for Grandfather myself and would never have dreamed of singing for him.

The spring of 1958, I’d just turned 11 and had regained my health. My parents rewarded me by sending me to a month-long boys’ camp in Wisconsin, three hours north of our home in Chicago. It was my first time away on my own, and I was thrilled at the promise of learning to swim, play ball and row on the lake. Camp activities even included music lessons! Two weeks in, I was over the moon. My insecurities were nearly forgotten, just in time for Visitors’ Day, when I’d show my mother all that I’d learned. My father would be, as ever, busy with work.

Outside the main lodge, I watched the families arrive. In the distance, I saw my mother. But who was beside her? Grandma! I couldn’t believe she had come all this way—a six-hour journey for her.

I raced to meet them. “Grandma! Mom!” I yelled gleefully. That’s when I noticed the man walking one step behind them. “Grandfather Jurgen?” I said. The words escaped my mouth in a kind of high-pitched gasp.

Mom and Grandma gave me warm hugs, while Grandfather stood straight as a soldier beside them. “Evan,” he said, stiffly extending his hand.

“Hello, Grandfather Jurgen.” I took his hand and shook it. Timorously. He frowned.

“Shake firmly, like a man,” he said, squeezing my hand in a vise-like grip.

“Yes, Grandfather,” I said.

Grandma rescued me from the handshake. “So, Evan,” she said, “won’t you show us around?”

I escorted them across the campgrounds, then into the main lodge, the cavernous building where most of our indoor activities took place, including meals. “Sunday worship too,” I said.

“This is where you pray?” Grandfather asked, his lips pursed. “It doesn’t look like a place of God.”

“But it can be,” I said. “Honest.” He nodded, somewhat askance. The modern world could be something of a challenge for a traditionalist like Grandfather. I shuddered to think of what he’d say about my friends and me listening to pop music, Elvis in particular. Not that Grandfather Jurgen would have known who Elvis was.

“My favorite part of camp is music class,” I announced. I led the group over to the piano, an old brown spinet. The music counselor was valiantly attempting to clean the keys, and I introduced her.

“Your young man has a really good voice,” Mrs. Linden said. “Possibly the best voice in the camp.” I sneaked a look to see Grandfather Jurgen’s reaction, but he stood there stoically.

“Evan,” Grandma said, “please sing something for us.”

Grandfather Jurgen raised his eyebrows in apparent expectation. I stood there paralyzed, but inside I shook like a leaf.

“You can sing anything you like,” Mom said a little anxiously.

My mind was blank. I couldn’t remember the words to a single song except “Hound Dog,” which I knew they’d hate.

“I have an idea. Do you mind if I play your piano?” Grandma asked Mrs. Linden.

“By all means,” she said. “But I’m afraid I’ll have to miss it. I’m needed at the picnic grounds to help serve supper.” I watched as she made her way across the lodge.

Grandma moved to the spinet’s bench and ran her fingers across the keys as if testing them. “Ready, Evan?” she asked.

I gulped. “Okay,” I choked out.

To my astonishment I heard the music to “O Tannenbaum” coming from the piano. Grandma looked to me and winked.

I closed my eyes and sang: “O, Tannenbaum, O, Tannenbaum, wie treu sind deine Blätter!” In English, “how faithfully you blossom.” My voice seemed to echo across the lodge as if carried on angels’ wings.

When I finished, Mom and Grandma clapped, loud and long. Then Grandfather Jurgen quietly spoke: “That was very pretty, Evan. You must sing that again for us at Christmastime.” His lips belied a faint smile, and he patted my back in a very manly kind of way. I extended my hand and shook his. Firmly. Looking him in the eye, I had the feeling we were really seeing one another for the first time.

Grandfather Jurgen cleared his throat. “You must be hungry,” he said. I was! “Well, then, we must go to supper.”

I led the way to the picnic grounds, feeling as tall as the highest fir tree in the forest. As we walked, Grandfather put his arm around my shoulders. “Yes,” he said softly, “that was very pretty, indeed.”

No later performance of “O Tannenbaum” could ever equal the joy I got from Grandfather’s reaction that day. Mom took even more delight in my singing the carol because she knew what Grandfather’s approval meant to me. All these years later, when I sing the words “how faithfully you blossom,” I remember the relationship I felt open up that day at camp. Never showy with affection, Grandfather Jurgen was comforting in his strong presence, like the tall fir trees he loved. ­

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