My grandfather was said to have been larger than life. He was a local celebrity, tavern owner, opera singer, father of ten and obsessive extrovert. He was a hard drinking, opinionated, Victorian/Edwardian-era pater familias. He ruled his home and business absolutely. He played his many children off each other, clearly favoring his namesake over others. Like most fathers of his time, Bill Ziegler was not afraid to use corporal punishment. I’m pretty sure he wasn't afraid of anything.
He taught my mother to play piano, not by practicing scales or notes or etudes or however people normally learn to play but by singing a song for her and telling her she had to be able to play it when he returned. Most of the time she did. If she failed, well….
Until recently, I considered myself to be an expert in forgiveness. Looking back over my life, I have been able to forgive people who have wronged me, even people who have wronged my own children. Sighs of relief all around. But I cannot forgive my grandfather.
I have held bitterness and disapproval in my heart. He was not someone I would admire. But, worse than that, because he was so much “larger than life” he infected lives around him, my mother’s life, to be sure, and that of her sisters and brothers. He has even affected my life and that of my siblings, and cousins.
We all caught a bit of the taint of Bill Ziegler. We all thought we were a bit grander than we were, a bit more in demand; we held our opinions up as models for everyone; we delighted in our own righteous anger. This is how we thought we were supposed to be. Over the years, we all, thank God, moderated our habits, but we’d have all been a lot happier if we hadn't had his glowering ghost hanging over us.
In 1937, at the age of 65, my grandfather died in an automobile accident. Finding the old obituary last year, I noted that no mention was made of alcohol as a cause, but he and a friend had been at an annual meeting of tavern owners. I know my grandfather. He was drunk. He left a wife and ten children, the youngest of whom was still in his teens. Personally, I think that was my grandmother’s luckiest day. She did fine. They all did fine. Better than fine in most cases.
Three days ago, I realized just how much I hate this man whom I never even met. I hate his celebrity, his pomposity, his hubris, his ego. And I mustn't. I am trying to find a way out of this and praying a lot. Somehow, I have to be able to forgive this man. I have to be able to see him as God sees him. If my heart breaks for gangsters and ISIS fighters, it must break for him as well.
It’s not about what he did, or failed to do, his things done and left undone. These will not change and I can't rationalize them or re-analyze them. The job that I have right now, that has been given to me by a gracious God, is to find love in my heart for this man whom I do not love. To do any less is to make myself more righteous than God. It is to say: God can forgive you, Bill Ziegler, but I can’t.
On the 22nd of January I was blessed to recite, as I am blessed to recite on the 22nd of every month, Psalm 109. These words struck me:
He put on cursing like a garment,
let it soak into his body like water
and into his bones like oil.
These words are not about my grandfather, they are about me. I put on cursing like a garment and it may have already soaked into my body like water, and into my bones like oil. I know what I am meant to learn from this verse. Intellectually, I am grateful for the chance to rid myself of this poison. On paper, I know that my soul is weary from carrying this burden of bitterness, a burden which I nevertheless somehow enjoy. How grand it is to hate someone!
So I will pray. I will thank God for showing me my fault. I will thank the Psalmist for touching me so particularly with his words. And maybe, before I die, I will thank my grandfather for teaching my mother to play the piano which gave us such joy, for bringing cheer into many people’s lives (which I know he did) and for starting up a family that has given me tender love and attention.