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The Milk House: Life, unmeasurable

Ryan Dennis Published on 06 February 2015

My grandfather, Dieter Kramer, had always told me: “Ryan, don’t be drinking the water beer.” Water beer was his term for any domestic lager. It was as fine a metaphor as any other for life.

Born in the village of Kochendorf in the Schwabenland of Germany, he moved with his family to New York state as a young teenager during the aftermath of the Second World War. He was a genuine and enthusiastic outdoorsman, enjoying hunting, fishing, gardening and being in the woods.

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He especially loved horses and could often be seen on the local roads in a buggy pulled by Welsh ponies or with Percherons and a cart. He was always a fan of Baxter Black.

When “The Milk House” was first published in Progressive Dairyman – next to Black’s column – it was the only proof he needed that I had arrived as a writer. Several days before Christmas, my grandfather passed away suddenly after an accident.

I was asked to lead the memorial service and give the eulogy. I was glad for the opportunity to honor my grandfather and put to use the faith he had in me as a writer – but was soon faced with how inadequate one becomes trying to encapsulate a human life.

I locked myself in my room for the days preceding the service, trying to find the words. It would be the hardest thing I ever wrote.

By unlikely events, I ended up living in the Schwabian region of Germany for two years. I befriended older relatives who took me to eat at the basinwirtschafts he had told me about and fed me the ochsenmalsalat shaved from the top of the cow’s mouth that he had always remembered as being the pinnacle of fine food.

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I was able to see the house where he grew up, walk the same streets and go into the salt mine where his father, Eugene, worked for many years.

Even though I had heard many of his stories about growing up in Germany, it was only being there that I started to comprehend that it was an entirely separate life in a completely different culture.

Although that was once his identity, he had to leave it with no material possessions to find selfhood in a different country with a language he did not know. He never talked about it in such terms nor complained about any circumstances he might have lived through.

Instead of bitterness and spite, he lived with a passion and vitality that affected us all. I learned more about him, while at the same time it became apparent that the complexity of any human being is often left unmeasured.

Before I knew better, I saw a funeral as a grand event that stood as the culmination of one’s life, laid bare for all to consider and appreciate. Now I know that isn’t true, if only because such an aspiration is impossible to fulfill. In the end, it is simply hurting people trying to do the best they can.

The family and friends of Dieter Kramer combined their greatest energies and did an extraordinary job in creating a special service: His grandson made a video montage; his great-niece played the piano; brothers, sisters and children wrote down their memories to be read aloud; everyone brought food.

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It was as singular and exceptional as any memorial event could be. Still, nothing seemed like it could be enough to justify the life of a good man like Grandpa Kramer.

It was an old, rugged chair that finally made the feelings tangible. Our family always gathers on Christmas Eve at my grandmother’s. We decided to still have Christmas, if only because he would have wanted us to. It was good to be together in the close space of a small living room, even if the house fell into a heavy silence now and then.

Although we might not have said it aloud, we all expected it: The hardest part was seeing the empty chair where my grandfather had always sat. It was an obvious metaphor but still one that gave manifestation to the void of his passing. It signified that something important was missing – something that shaped and defined us, and that was an essential part of who we are.

Although it is an old truth, the loss of my grandfather showed how interconnected we all are. To be human means to be formed and informed by the people around you. He was the connection to a distant past and culture.

He exampled what it meant to work hard and relentlessly smile. He’s in the background of most memories of home. In the end, we as people are all the sum parts of each other. That’s what makes the loss so great, and why the eulogy of a good man always falls short. PD

Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.

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