Omaby Christine Kulke
Oma leaned forward on her knees in the garden, resting her weight on one arm, elbow bent and twitching now and then from the strain. The fingers of her other hand worked through the loose dirt - a little more stiffly than they used to, I noticed. Her white knuckles protruded, the skin almost transparent over bone. The simple white cotton shirt she wore carried traces of the midday meal she had stirred on the stove a few hours before, and her sky-blue wraparound skirt twisted confusedly as she worked methodically from weed to weed. As she arrived at each one she tugged the roots up into daylight and shook off the soil, whipping the plant up and down through the air as if trying to teach it a harsh lesson.
Oma finished with the flowerbed around the birdbath, which tilted so precariously that I was always amazed it never fell down. She straightened up slowly, running her calloused fingers through cropped white strands of hair. She was tired. Deep creases traced their weary pattern across her face. Sitting back, still on her knees, neck arched slightly and chin up, she seemed to be looking at something.
Her gaze dissipated; her thought was finished. She stood up with effort and walked, still slightly bent, towards the house. Perhaps she knew, but I did not, that this was her last visit to the garden.
To me, the garden always seemed boundless and wild, an organism that only Oma could discipline, and one that I approached with caution during the long summers I spent at my grandparents' shore house as a child. Beyond the birdbath the trees appeared taller and the bushes more tangled, although I knew that Oma pruned them diligently. Rarely was I with her in the garden. One of us always seemed to be watching the other. When I was exploring, she would prefer to sit on the balcony over the clothesline and smoke quietly, sometimes with a glass of beer on the table next to her. Her legs would be crossed, the upper one swinging slightly from the knee. Her left arm, folded tightly across her stomach, would prop up her right elbow, and she held the cigarette gently, almost wistfully, in the fingers of her right hand. From her unconscious way of wrapping herself up, I knew not to bother her.
In winter, when many of the neighbors left for warmer temperatures, the garden went dormant, except for the snowdrops that Oma carefully cultivated and picked for the small vase on the dining room table. In their company, by the light of a fire and candles, Oma and I sat across from each other in the evenings during my week-long college vacations. To break the silences we recounted our activities, and occasionally an awkward smile spread across each of our faces as we came to realize that both of us, seventy years apart, diligently stayed in motion, filling every moment with a task. We took copious notes in courses, we volunteered at the community center, we discovered Kate Chopin at the same time, we took long walks alone, and after a little wine we told each other that we kept journals.
But after the smile passed across her face she would abruptly ask, "Aren't you taking enough time to have fun?" I would shift in my chair, sitting on my hands, earnestly looking at her and wondering what she had in mind by "fun." And as the night closed in outside, I sat on my hands and Oma's fingers gripped each side of her body as her arms made an 'x' across the front.
My mother, who moved to Oma's house for a stay that she knew would be temporary, asked my brother Frederick and me to come from the West for a long weekend. When I first walked into the wood-panelled bedroom, Mother looked at me anxiously and whispered that I should be prepared for a change. On the hospital bed a yellow blanket engulfed Oma, who was turned away from us - defiantly, it seemed. Suddenly Frederick was down on the floor, his head on his knees, sobbing. I had never seen him shed a tear before. And then the tears came to me, for the first time since childhood, and then to Mother. A few minutes later, Frederick and Mother left and I stood alone by Oma's bedside. Still facing the wall, she spoke: "I'm not here, Christine. I'm not here."
That night, on the beach, as my feet sank into the soft sand and my calves broke the pull of the current, I noticed that the island across the sound seemed as near and bright as a candlelit ship at anchor. A thunderstorm was on its way, then; in dry weather the low stretch of land across the water would have floated away, dissolving into the wash of foam and sky.
It was late. I walked home and lay on the bed downstairs, listening, as my grandmother shouted NO through her morphine-laced dreams. The power of her voice belied the waste of her body, so light that its imprint no longer marked the bottom sheet when the Hospice nurse gently shifted its position to prevent chafing. I thought of the emphatic determination with which Oma had gripped each weed around the birdbath just a few weeks ago. Now she wished her own body would fall off as easily.
A sudden streak of lightning reminded me that I had seen the island so clearly. Then the thunder arrived with a resounding crash. Sheets of rain fell from the sky, flooding the flowerbed and catapulting a waterfall off one side of the tilted birdbath.
By morning it was quiet, and bright. Not even the curtains softened the blades of sunlight that pierced through the window into the living room. Mother took the gold high-backed chair, Frederick sprawled on the love seat, and I arranged myself on the floor with the footstool as my prop.
Schubert piano impromptus played softly in the background. My grandfather's piano was silent, as it has been for several years, except for the few times I tentatively struck a note or two during my college visits. The whole house would vibrate, and I would stop.
A noise in the hallway caused us to stir. We looked up, all thinking the same thought. We smiled at each other a little clumsily.
The noise, again. We could not help ourselves; we turned in unison to the stairwell. A shuffling, and a bony hand on the rail, a diaphanous nightgown, many sizes too big now. Mother rushed to my grandmother's side, awestruck, terrified, and heartbroken. She awkwardly helped her into the living room, afraid, it seemed, to touch the knobby limbs.
I don't know how many minutes or hours passed as my grandmother sat in her favorite high-backed chair. My mother left the living room without a word, and I heard the floorboards creak as she moved from room to room throughout the house, busying herself with household tasks that had mounted during the past weeks. My brother went out for a run.
I thought Oma was asleep until I noticed with a start that her eyes were not fully closed. She opened them all the way. "Hi, Oma," I said, smiling through tears that I didn't want her to see. She was quiet, but her eyes recovered their intensity. Part of me stood outside the scene, watching the two of us alone together, and that part told me to say something to her, to fill the space left by my mother and brother. "...love you, Oma," I stuttered, losing the first word. I had never said that to her before, and I realized in a moment that I had mirrored the rare, rushed, and awkward statement murmured to me in recent years as I ran to meet the train after my visits from college. She also lost the first word, each time.
She swallowed once, twice, squeezing her eyes shut with a determination that told of pain. Slowly the muscles in her face and throat moved, and the sound of her voice emerged, barely audible.
The words hit me with the violent force of a command and the pained urgency of a plea. Briefly Oma disappeared again, then returned. Slowly, painfully shaping each word as it emerged from her stuck throat, she said to me: "Christine, you will have a hard life. If I had done more, it would not be so hard."
Shock set me back on my toes until, desperately collecting myself, I knelt forward and put my hand on her feet. "Oma, you did as much as you possibly could," I started to stammer, and then heard it again: "Be silent." She was not finished.
"Christine," she continues, "keep up the fight. It is a good fight."
A week later, back home, I walked into my apartment after an early morning jog and saw the light blinking on my answering machine. The recorded voice stretched unevenly, like a violin string being tuned. It was my mother, calling to tell me that Oma had died early in the morning. I went through the motions of going to class and then walked home, tired.
Only my eyes seemed to exist as I wandered through my apartment. On my kitchen counter sat a squash, so calm and composed, so comfortable with its perfect and ridiculous shape. Oma knew I loved squash, and for each visit she cooked one into a pie for me. Her pie, for me. Never, yet, had I made it myself.
I opened the drawer and pulled out the butcher knife. My hands grabbed the squash by the throat and pinned it against the cutting board. I wanted to slit the squash down the middle but it resisted, slippery and awkward. The knife was dull; I had to saw back and forth to get anywhere. Finally I had enough of a gash to take it in hand and pull it apart. The squash halves lay face up, docile, on the cutting board. My arms and hands were sore.
A streak of sunlight found its way into the kitchen. I walked toward its projection on the floor and stood in the warmth.
When the squash started sizzling in the oven I pulled it out, scooped the flesh into a bowl and stirred, faster and faster. My arm started to hurt again. I stopped, walked back into the sunlight, and breathed deeply. The recalcitrant squash had turned into a soft, comforting, aromatic pillow.
In another bowl I gathered together the ingredients for the pie crust. I left the squash behind and went in with my hands. And I was lost, gone into the rhythm of kneading, alone at home with the sun dappling the whitish-grey walls and illuminating the blue curtains.
An image entered my mind: a picture of myself at age eleven, arms folded awkwardly, trying to hide the woman just starting to emerge. I looked down and saw my arms now and in them felt Oma's arms, wrapped around her body for years.
I turned away from the fragrant pie that I had made for myself.