Obligation

Kristen has learned to accept that her grandfather will not know her face apart from her siblings. She is his grandchild, non-differentiable from the other dozen, and he knows little more of this stranger than of someone off the street, and less than if she had had a conversation with him.

“So, when’s school start for you?”

“In just a week.”

“And you’re going into…”

“...12th grade.”

Kristen never participated in sports like her sister; she was never Homecoming Queen. It took her the first three years of high school to accept that there is much more to her. Her qualities, although not as keen towards recognition, are qualities she has grown to love. There is so much she could share: the art exhibit she’s invited to in the winter, the anticipation and fear when considering years after graduation, the anxiety of deciding the next step of life when she cannot even decipher if she is on the right path. These are the variables of her life that become flat in his presence, smothered by repetitive questions.

“12th grade.”

Her grandfather directs the conversation to her father, “How’s work going for you?” He shuffles his feet towards his son and then away, as if unsure if the question is appropriate.

“It’s alright.” Her father stands with his arms crossed, as if a guard to his own kingdom. His expression is not unwelcoming, but unresponsive to any attempt at engagement. Expressionless. He has trained himself to preserve his emotions for the ones who can appreciate them. It’s difficult to sympathize with an impassive father after having children of his own, children he cherishes and longs to be with, a trait he certainly did not inherit from this man whose only offering to the world is peripheral anecdotes: the number of times a robin pecked his window sill, the current success or failure of his watermelon patch, stories of childhood friends who, last week, he either saw at church or their funeral.

The house hasn’t changed since Oma’s death. If anything, Opa’s collection has grown. It overtakes the garage, organized but growing rapidly. Beat up softballs line the back wall, worn and discolored from their previous settlement in roadside ditches. Dozens of forgotten basketballs acquired from school playgrounds are trapped in metal trash cans behind the red truck planted at the heart of the garage: a relic from his days as a carpenter. The freezer-- thoroughly stocked with Dollar Store dumpster hotdogs and candy bars- - is accompanied by scooters on either side. Every item-- every tennis racquet, every snowshoe, every roller skate-- has a story. They belonged to a young Amish boy: a shadow cast from Opa’s childhood into the next generation. They were tossed aside, outgrown and unwelcome by a group of teenagers. They were treasured by school kids, and then discarded when new trends overshadowed traditions.

It’s been 20 years and still Opa keeps Oma’s belongings in the back room, unvisited and steadily collecting dust. Light filters through the single window, casting a dim glow over the room’s inhabitants: her rocking chair, countless piles of miscellaneous fax papers, a typewriter, National Geographics from the 30’s, photo albums, and books. Hundreds and hundreds of books. Novels on nursing, science, history. Stories of death and world catastrophes, of religion and end times. They pervade every corner, line the shelves, weigh on tables. They permeate the atmosphere, shed their warnings of doom while simultaneously offering their knowledge, as if doing a favor to the curious wanderers.

Intertwined amongst the books stand family photos. Black and white and sepia-tinted replicas, time capsules of the familiar yet distant past. Oma and Opa’s wedding day, a family portrait of their three sons, her father sitting in the front yard as a young boy. They sit under a haze of time, as if the decades have rubbed out the edges. As if one day, as fewer and fewer understand the handsewn dresses and head coverings of their upbringing, they may altogether fade.

Opa does not acknowledge the room, and yet cannot bring himself to rid the house of her belongings. And so the house tilts perpetually to one side, laden with the past that creeps steadily towards vapor as he cannot forget her, and yet he cannot even speak her name.

Hotdogs from a crockpot and stale chips are set out for lunch. Kristen and her family sit in the sun room, avoiding the actual consumption of the food but trying to maintain polite gratitude for the effort made.

“I was in my truck when I saw this shoe on the side of the road-- the road behind White Horse.” He points to his left foot, adorned with a bright blue sneaker with neon soles. “Didn’t really think much of it, but then about a quarter mile down the road I see the other shoe, so I pick it up and drive back to get the first one. Some kid probably threw them out without thinking about it. But now I have a nice pair of sneakers and didn’t pay a buck!” Her brother pokes her shoulder, whispers, “Are we leaving soon?”

Kristen shushes him, but feels the same restlessness that comes with his monologues of the monotonous details that suddenly become very interesting in old age.

Kristen has been told that Oma got in an accident on the way home from a party. She pictures a party with boxed cookies and stale coffee and women with weary attitudes. The kind of party where ladies get together to discuss quilting, their kids, their husbands, church, anything so as not to talk about the expanding hopelessness and nullity of their lives. She imagines Oma sitting in a cold folding chair in a circle of women, looking at their faces and wondering what purpose she has there. She imagines Oma’s bent back, forty years weighing upon her shoulders, exhausted by her marriage. Instead of relief, her empty house brings despair; a sure sign her boys are past needing her help, having families of their own. Inundated by the forlorn sense of growing old. Kristen wishes away any regret in Oma’s decision; she replaces it with gratitude for her children and the optimism of new lives in the world. Oma believed she earned a better life than what she got, after working night shifts at the hospital to supplement her husband’s meager paycheck as a carpenter; being present for her children while her husband developed his collection of dumpster finds. Oma must have been struggling with the idea for years, ever since their first kid.

Kristen had been told there was an accident, but the tree was Oma’s opportunity, her way out.

There is still a memorial along the highway.

Oma never met her seventh grandchild. She knew about her, but left just weeks before Kristen was born. Eight months into the pregnancy. They say Oma would have loved her, but it’s easy to say how someone would have cared when that someone is dead. Oma would have loved her, but she would not have known her. When isolation and disconnect is a family pattern, it’s foolish to think one grandbaby could change the dynamics between parents and their children.

Kristen has been conditioned to understand that grandparents are not friends; they are obligations. They are people she has dinner with when guilt rises after months have gone by without a visit. She hears her parents’ critical analysis of their childhood and watches the pattern of detachment continue. They feel no responsibility to the people who raised them, no obligation to their siblings. They see a problem and remove it. She fears she will do the same.

Her parents give up on conversation. A silence falls over the company. Opa must feel some burden, some anxiety at his inability to carry the conversation.

“Opa, could I borrow a book or two sometime? I saw some interesting ones in the back room.”

“Oh, yes, of course! Help yourself! I have some suggestions if you’re interested.”

She walks with him, through the kitchen, down the hallway, to the back room. It’s a start.  

Olivia Stoltzfus is a senior at Solanco High School where she is involved in a variety of arts programs, including National Art Honor Society. She works to further develop her literature skills by analyzing advanced pieces of literature in her AP English class, and writing both in and out of school. After graduation, she plans to continue her fine art education at a post-secondary art school on the East Coast.