Why I won’t really grieve my grandfather’s death

My sympathies go to his only daughter, Barb, who is my aunt. And to her daughters, Pam and Kathy, who are my cousins, and — even though I’ve never met them — their children.

I’m sorry for their loss even though I feel no real sorrow about the death of my grandfather (who, in my side of the family, we came to know as Fred and I’ll explain that in a bit.) I’m also sorry he and I weren’t close. Most of all, I’m sorry my grandfather lived many aspects of his life the way he did. Keep in mind, this view of his life is from my perspective, so take it with a grain of salt. But from my perspective, much of his life was squandered.

He was a smart man who never graduated from high school. The story I’ve often heard about this is that he was a troublemaker as a boy and often didn’t go to school. His parents grew tired of their only son’s misbehavior and moved him from the family’s house in town to the farm where my grandfather lived for most of the rest of his life.

The problem with this, I think, was that my grandfather never really wanted to be a farmer – even though he was successful at it. What he really wanted to be was a butcher, a goal he finally set out to achieve when he was in his 60s. By then, his only son, Tom, my dad, had been farming with him in a partnership for many years.

The slaughterhouse my grandfather set out to build in the late 1970s on our family’s Lucas County farm proved to be the gasoline thrown on a fire that burned very hot for a while and then smoldered for a very long time. Looking back at it, to be fair, my grandfather’s idea could have put our family two or even three decades ahead of the value-added agriculture movement that is popular today. Done correctly, there still could be Steinbachs raising, processing and selling organic and grass-fed beef to high-end restaurants and grocery stores.

But my grandfather set out to build a slaughterhouse – doing most of the work himself and paying little heed to requirements the facility would have to meet in order to pass a USDA inspection – with the idea that people would come to our farm and butcher for themselves the cattle we would raise and sell to them. I’m not sure who he thought would actually want to butcher their own meat. Anyway, he started to use resources from the farm to finance his plan – an idea that didn’t sit well with my dad.

This disagreement uncovered many smaller resentments and mean things done through the years to my mom mostly by my paternal grandmother, a woman, who, I’d guess, may have suffered from depression. No one will convince me she was the happy person she portrayed in public. Nor do I think my grandparents had a particularly happy marriage. Happy people don’t help take something away from their only son that was as important as farming was to my dad.

For Dad, the planned meatpacking plant was the last straw. He took over the farm. My grandfather retired so he could continue to build the slaughterhouse that he never finished or opened. And my family – Mom, Dad, me, my two brothers and sister – no longer associated with my dad’s parents, his only sister or her family. We didn’t speak even though we lived in a house that was maybe 50 yards from my grandparents’ house. We would go to church on Sunday and sit within a pew or two of them and not even say hello.

At some point, my siblings and I began to refer to our grandparents as Fred and Frieda Friendly because they didn’t really seem like grandparents anymore and they weren’t exactly friendly to us.

Some who read this may blame my parents, my siblings and me for the family tension. That’s OK. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. And we weren’t as innocent as driven snow. I regret throwing back at her the high school graduation gift my grandmother had made and tried to give to me at the party to which she had not been invited.

But I also know it was my grandparents, a few years after they had given up day-to-day operations of the farm, who told officers at the bank where my parents had their operating loans that they wanted the farm back. Eventually, the bank foreclosed on my parents and my grandparents testified for the bank at the resulting trial, which my parents ultimately lost.

After the trial, my parents knew they were going to have to start over. But they were supposed to be able to stay in their house on the farm. Dad built that house. It was where he and Mom had lived for 20 years and had raised four children – two of whom were still in school at the time.

But it wasn’t meant to be. For reasons I’ll never understand, my grandfather in the summer of 1986 dug down to the water main that ran to that house from his house and he shut off the water. For the rest of the summer, my parents trucked in water. For what it’s worth, this was perhaps the lowest point in my dad’s entire life. It is the only time I can remember ever seeing him cry because he was sure Mom was going to leave him. I don’t think he would have blamed her if she had.

But they stayed together and moved to town. Ultimately, it was the best move they ever made – one they should have made many years earlier. If they had, maybe our family wouldn’t have fractured and my siblings and I might share some of the grief that many others are feeling about John Steinbach’s death.

As it is, I don’t really feel anything about it. If anything, the anger I once felt about my grandfather has been replaced by pity. For whatever the reasons, it’s not a life well lived when you have family members – some whom you never even met – who won’t miss you after you’re gone and don’t plan to attend your funeral.

Ultimately, I think that’s the bottom line to what is, indeed, a sad tale.

If anything, I grieve the lost opportunities John and I had to really get to know one another in ways that were more meaningful than how we knew each other when I was 13 and he was 65. I sort of envy the relationships with him my cousins had. And I regret whatever my role was in creating those lost opportunities and not letting go of them.

I wish him well. Wherever he is, I hope he and Dad have already found each other and mended fences in a way they never completely were able to do here. Maybe my grandfather has finally learned that his way isn’t always the only way to do everything.

Having lost my own dad five years ago, I’d like my aunt and the rest of her family to know that time helps heal all wounds. But those we love never really leave us after they are gone. And old John is still with them, with a big chew of Red Man in his mouth and a smart remark on his lips. I hope he is happy and at peace.

And I hope the other side of his family can find some comfort in that hope.

As for me, my siblings and our mom, I think we’ll all take some comfort in knowing a really awful part of our lives can finally be buried for good.


6 thoughts on “Why I won’t really grieve my grandfather’s death

  • Chris, I think – and I’m completely serious here – that this story would make a GREAT novel. Seriously.

  • It’s hard to believe I grew up with you and attended the same church with you AND never realized any of this. What a heartfelt story this is and I agree with Lori…Write the book 🙂 We never really understand why some people do the things they but the important thing to remember is Who we are. You have always been a great guy and I’m sure you still are! Stay positive and again Write the book!! 🙂

  • Having lunch with you on one of my first days at the Tribune, I realized we had similar heart aches growing up -and that we were both stronger as a result, that would be fast friends and good friends regardless of where we were. Now, across the many miles and many days apart, I realize how very much I miss you. Your story is exactly what it should be-the novel of your life. Write…

  • Those extra years your Grandfather got your Dad should have had. I think about your Dad everyday. See, I am not the only one who thinks you should write a book, I’ve thought that for over 20 yrs. From the first time I met you, I knew you had a story inside you.

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