When was the last time you looked straight up a flag pole? he asked. I thought — what does it mean to live straight up?
Interview with a Kulak from 1937
she buries money in the backyard
never writes a check
she closes her window during coffee talks
with her closest friend
Oma says no when I ask her to tell
but what about when
she scolded me
she knew the rumble
when we felt it, before we saw
the tank cross the Lockwood Bridge
searching for the Veterans Day parade
marching through downtown
how she twisted
my hand in hers
her rosary to me
though her Bible sits in sunlight on her table
she remembers hiding
wrapping it in burlap beneath floor boards
her father’s boot
between it and a soldier’s gun
I hope the tank will come our way I said
she said we can’t tell
if that tank will turn and so
we shouldn’t stay.
Where to begin and how far to go before stopping in this post? The Schtamhalter is what my former in-laws call my son — the only one left to carry on the family name.
When I was still married into this German family from the Ukraine, I pestered Oma, my then mother-in-law, with questions her children hadn’t asked. Her answers speak of slipping off to the Turkish border only to be turned back; of a milk cow being traded in order to get the women off the cattle train in Poland; of family being shipped to Siberia and never heard from again.
Opa and Oma had the wherewithal (I would so much like to ask Oma now what the word for that would be) to hide in a root cellar for three weeks and then sneak off in a milk wagon filled with a handful of others willing to risk the escape to Eastern Europe in 1941. Their four years of living on the road as displaced people eventually resulted in sponsored passage to a small farming community in Montana where the father of my children was eventually born — the only one of his siblings born in a free country.
This next part is best told if I fast forward through my married years to their son. One day I shocked everyone by walking away from it all. I felt like a traitor to all they held dear, this family of in-laws who had gone through so much. But I did what I did and hoped one day they might come to understand. Would they find a way to forgive? I admit to this being a nervous question I’ve carried in my Irish bag of worries and what-if heavy burdens.
A few weeks ago when my daughter and I were back home (while our beloved Schtamhalter was left behind to work the weekend and watch the pups for me.) I was invited to have pizza with the entire family, my daughter at my side. (Or, at my daughter’s side was me.)
Oma is 85 now. Opa passed away eleven years ago. The family realizes Opa and Oma’s story might go away unless someone writes it down. The night my brother treated me to a view of the American flag flying at full mast in half-darkness was the same night I was asked if I might write Oma’s story.
I like to think the two go hand-in-hand. Some of us will do what we have to do in order to be free, though we have no way of knowing how things will work out in the end. And when is The End, anyways? Life is too short and too dear to go at it in any other fashion than — straight up.