Page 12


ss. koc:0 and note how little has changed in the eight years I’ve lived away. The woman two doors over still stands on her front lawn, peddling gossip and watering the St. Augustine. Teenagers in jackedup F-150s still run the stop sign outside our house. The parking lot of St. Cecilia Catholic Church down the block remains dutifully at capacity on Sunday morning. These villages compose a community where good ol’ boys with questionable Enron ties share property lines with graybeards in khaki jumpsuits, where quiet modernist gems are razed in favor of monuments to the marriage of new money and poor taste. This is not the neighborhood to which Oma and my grandfather, Opa, moved in 1954. This is a place made vulgar by lack of nuance. Oma’s modest brick house, once one of many modest brick houses on a shady cul-de-sac, will soon be sandwiched by two towering stucco boxes. She reconciles this notion of progress by shaking her head rhetorically when she opens the door for me. “What are they doing out there?” she says. Today she is confused. “What day is it?” she asks. “I’m such a zombie. I’m so mad at myself” Mornings tend to be this way. She sits on the couch, leans forward, rubs her temples, scolds herself. “I’m so vervalant,” she says. Loosely translated as “defiant,” vervalant is a word Oma uses often to make light of her situation. Watching her, I see that she understands her mind is losing hold of things she knows, even at her age, she should remember. Beyond this, I’m not sure what she makes of it. I imagine the Proustian disorientation of waking up in an unfamiliar room, believing it at first to be familiar. The fog of sleeping too late. But for Oma the room rearranges itself only the slightest bit, the fogs lifts but leaves behind a mist. In the mornings, she doesn’t want to move, she doesn’t want to speak. If I ask how she slept, or what she ate for breakfast, she waves her hand and sighs, “Past history:’ We listen to audio tapes her parents sent from Holland to Houston in the fifties, back when long-distance phone calls were glamorous. The tapes were a way for them to hear one another’s voices without the expense. My greatgrandmother, Over-Oma we call her, sounds far away on the recording, in time and distance. She speaks Dutch, laughs, asks questions of my young mother in English; her voice is kind. Though she has listened to these tapes before, Oma seems astonished to hear her mother’s voice. “My mother,” she says, “so sweet:’ My great-grandfather, Over-Opa, takes his turn on the tape. I barely understand a word, but his low voice is magic. Oma’s brother, Bert, tells a funny story. These are the voices most familiar to Oma, and we are in the room with them. “It makes me sad,” she says. But she doesn’t want to turn it off. Over-Oma begins to play Chopin. The song is muffled and haunting, a waltz. “I still see her playing,” Oma says, running her fingers over a ghost piano. Oma is saddened by these memories, but she is also momentarily pulled from the stress of forgetting. Do these years seem closer to her than the present? The saddest and strangest part is that the future, with its necessity for context and pattern, is gone. I move forward, and Oma is thrust back. I close my eyes and see her suspended over a great funnel, growing darker as it narrows. I reach for her hand, and pull her out just in time. It’s early afternoon now Jeopardy isn’t on for a couple of hours. The Houston Chronicle is dreadful reading. Oma wants to sit. But even in this mood, she’ll talk about the war. She will always talk about the war. February 5, 1941: Oma’s first love, Fritz, is shot down at 19 in the Battle of Singapore. His framed photograph hangs in her kitchen. March 9, 1942: the Dutch surrender the islands to the Japanese. Oma and the family fill a chest with valuables and bury it beneath the garage. Bert goes on a bike ride one afternoon and doesn’t return home. Shortly afterward, Over-Opa is taken away by Japanese soldiers. Both he and Bert are sent to work camps; it will be four years before Oma and her mother see them again. Over-Oma sends secret letters, rolled up inside bars of soap, until the Japanese cut off communication. Japanese officials move into the house and she and her mother are sent to cordoned-off housing for Dutch women. The stories do not become glad until after the war, when she meets Opa, a pilot in the Dutch Air Force. We stare at a picture of the two of them, walking arm-in-arm in Sydney. Oma touches the photo, in love with him. He is striking. 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER NOVEMBER 28, 2008