Initiated At 70

Ask my kids about the Vollbracht family and they would be mostly clueless. My older daughter was 3 and a half, my son 1 and a half, and my younger daughter 1 and a half years away from arrival when my parents were killed in an auto accident on September 23, 1972.  They were but 56 years old at the time.

During the 40 years since my parents’ deaths I have mentioned little to my kids about my life growing up in the Vollbracht/Ritzmann family. Their only contact with the family after Mom’s and Dad’s deaths were infrequent visits to Canton, Missouri, 470 miles away, to visit Uncle Earl (Dad’s brother) and his wife Edna (Mom’s sister) (Yes, the two Vollbracht brothers married the two Ritzmann sisters). On our visits we rarely discussed family matters but simply had fun together. And I ask myself, why did I never attempt to share with my kids what life was like growing up in this German Lutheran family when others I know seem so eager to hand down their families’ histories.

Growing up in the Vollbracht/Ritzmann extended family had been an idyllic life in my own mind. Mom and Dad were high-school sweethearts and seemed perfectly matched. Ours was the Norman Rockwell family with both sets of grandparents living nearby. Dad and Mom were leaders in the St. James Lutheran Church, where they both grew up and where their parents belonged. In fact Grandpa Ritzmann was a wonderful organist at the church until he died of cancer when I was 10. Younger brother Paul and I were respected students at St. James Lutheran Church and active in Boy Scouts and youth activities at St. James. We were following our parents’ example of being well connected to the church. This Lutheran Church became the framework of our worldview.

But I seemed to distance myself from all of this after Mom and Dad died. I am curious why this is. Paul and I also talk about the fact that neither of us remembers a grieving process regarding their tragic deaths when I was just turning 30 and Paul was 28. At the news of their deaths on Saturday, September 23, we drove home to Quincy, Illinois, 470 miles from Cincinnati.  There we organized and participated in the funeral, which was at St. James Church and attended by an impressive crowd of 800 people, packed up or sold Mom’s and Dad’s personal possessions, sold their home, and in a week or so returned to Cincinnati to return to life. That rich chapter of our lives was then closed.

In meditation one recent morning I contemplated what life was like growing up in the extended Vollbracht/Ritzmann family. Let me share a bit on the Ritzmann side, the more dominant side. My mom, oldest child of three, was very studious, graduating valedictorian of her high school class of 400 or so, and going on to be a lay leader at St. James, and then a first grade teacher at St. James School. This was being true to her lineage. Her grandfather, my great-grandfather, was a Lutheran Theologian, a professor at Concordia Teacher’s College, a college affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Two of his sons were involved in our family: Mom’s dad, my grandpa Ritzmann, and his brother, “Uncle Art” as Mom would call him. Uncle Art lived with his wife in Washington, Missouri, a small town outside St. Louis and about 100 miles from Quincy.

Uncle Art was a formidable man: a skilled organist at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, president of the congregation, director of the Washington Symphony Orchestra, and president of a Washington bank. He was strong, opinionated, and alpha-male personified. No one argued with him. As a kid I did not know how to be around him other than to just be obedient and respectful as we visited them. Other formidable family members were my mom, of course, and her brother, my uncle, Dr. Leonard Ritzmann, a strong fundamentalist Christian MD whom we did not see much since his family lived in Oregon. Uncle Len was not a person I could easily be myself around – everything in our conversations kept coming back to my relationship with the Bible and Jesus Christ.

Growing up in this Vollbracht/Ritzmann world, performance, competence, solid unshakable faith, and leadership seemed important to child Gary.  He learned that we were who we were as people of the Faith and performers – in school, in music, in church, and in life – modeling Mom and being praised by Dad. Young Gary unconsciously resented being seen as a “performer child” tied to a fixed belief system he did not really believe in or understand. However, not recognizing his longing for love from Mom and others, he quickly substituted longing for love with longing for praise and approval. It took work to be a performer in areas that did not interest him. But he internalized being a performer as a way he needed to be in the world and came to see “acceptance and praise” – not love – as the basis for relating to others. Fortunately he loved studying and could do reasonably well in school. So this “good student” and “Strong Lutheran” became his identity.  But he resented not being able to relax into being himself.  There was no way for him to be an “average” student in relating to his family and peers.  Rather he felt it was imperative that he “work hard” “do his best,” and if possible be a “top student.” And always “strong in the Faith” and “never doubting.”

Young Gary’s real self was a boy who loved to have his back scratched, loved to eat, loved to build models, play with his electric trains, build with his erector sets, construct electronic Eico kits, build things out of wood, read books on chemistry and astronomy – a very curious boy. He did not do sports and, outside of a number of church activities, he interacted with only his brother and their mutual neighbor friend Johnny Ebeling.  Girls? Never mind. Young Gary seemed never to be taken seriously for who he was in these hobbies and curiosities. In some ways he felt that if he were not a performer in a respectable role he would have no place in The Vollbracht/Ritzmann clan.

How did all of this influence who he became as an adult? First of all, in his life he did perform and did get the rewards that the culture bestows upon performance. He ended up in leadership in many situations. He did not know why exactly, since he was not secure in the reality of who he was. In a way he even resented being in leadership as a way to have his identity. There was a passive-aggressive streak in him. For example, as CEO of SDRC he chose to not have his title on his business card. He wanted people to see him as Gary, not as “Chief Executive Officer.” He refused to take himself seriously as a leader. Why? Probably many issues here, but for sure he rebelled against and did not want to fit into society’s norms of success as was expected in his family.

So in the end his life struggle was overcoming his split personality: part of him having to meet the expectations of others in his solid faith, success and performance, and part of him being more laidback and gentle. He really struggled in the world of alpha-males, the world in which even today he too often finds himself, serving causes that, while worthwhile, are not his causes. And especially sad is his wrestling in his primary relationships where he struggles to be himself, to be real.

So as I meditated about all that has been Gary’s life, I wondered if this is what initiation ceremonies are for. In these, adolescents ceremoniously enter a process of transitioning from being a boy or a girl into to being a man or a woman. The idea strikes me as curious. Going into the woods as a boy who has lived with Mom; and coming out of the woods as a man unto himself, offering himself and his gifts to the world and feeling welcomed as the man he truly is. I was curious: was this Gary never really initiated into Life, his adult Life?

And then came my 70th birthday. My son and his girlfriend treated Pat and me to a stellar dinner at the Precinct, a fancy Cincinnati restaurant. We had a grand time. They both gave me thoughtful gifts. But what most touched me was the beautiful card my son gave me. The formal printing read:

Happy Birthday, Dad, With Gratitude and Love

So much that is good in my life is mine because of you.

So many of the values I cherish today are mine because of your good example.

You are so much a part of all that I am today that I know your

Warmth and love will stay with me forever.

He signed it:

Happy 70th Birthday to you Dad –

the most wonderful, kind and giving man I know,

Love, Your Son John.”

As I take in John’s beautiful blessing, it is as if I am coming out of the woods, the initiation ceremony being complete. I am, at 70, being welcomed into manhood, being seen and honored for who I truly am – not a “leader, strong in faith,” but a “kind and giving man.” I have been initiated!

The experience is one of tasting freedom, taking off the many masks and the protecting armor of performance, competence, and having to be right, especially in matters of faith. I feel welcomed into the world in my humanity, my merely and utterly human humanity. I am humbled. I am at peace – just being me. Yes, perhaps John initiated me on my 70th birthday – October 15, 2012. How could I ask for more?

Perhaps in my long life I have finally broken free of a pattern in this particular German Lutheran way of being. Who knows, but I see this as a possible healing of my long German Lutheran Vollbracht/Ritzmann lineage.

Perhaps this awareness sheds light on why I did not share more of the Vollbracht/Ritzmann family history with my kids. This heritage just wasn’t me, and, unconsciously, perhaps, I was not wanting to expose my kids to this German Lutheran Vollbracht/Ritzmann way of being in the world. It seems that John got what I missed in me. And perhaps he shall pass on this new heritage, a heritage based upon connecting in love instead of performance, to his children and their children. May it be so.

Shared in love and gratitude, Gary

Three Generations Of Vollbrachts

Gary (70), Son John (41) and Grandson Liam (10)


1) Of the generation ahead of me, only Uncle Len is alive. Len is now 91 to my 70, and we, happily, have a warm relationship — much healing for me. But for a decade — while I was in my late 50’s and early 60’s and individuating from my family of origin in my spirituality — our relationship felt particularly estranged to me. All necessary for my growth, however, and I am quite grateful for his solid Christian faith. Uncle Len was also very present to me after my parents died and beautifully fed my love for the bible during those years that followed. Again, I am grateful for his love and presence to me.

2) Here is an interesting Pathwork Quote from Lecture 93 The Link Between the Main Image, Repressed Needs, and Defenses that I put on my website over a year ago (August 2011). I can see the strong thread of continuity from my introduction to this quote then and this blog entry today.

3) Here is a more recent Pathwork Quote from Pathwork Question and Answer Session 113 that I titled Faith and Doubt Concerning Life and Death. I found it relevant to today’s blog entry as well.

4) This blog was shared with my writing group. As I read the piece I could barely get through the last few paragraphs because of the tears that welled up from deep inside. Allowing these feelings to arise solidified this experience of initiation. I am grateful for my writing group, some of whom have witnessed this long process of spiritual and psychological evolution in me for over thirteen years.