Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Old Man

So...yeah...remember me?  No?  I was afraid of that...
Hi!  My name's Bailey!  I...yeah.  Hi.
So I've been gone.  Not that anyone noticed.  At all.  Maybe it's a good thing I haven't been here.  But Junior year is not fun.  ACT prep, advanced classes, ACT prep, college prep, theatre, and ACT don't allow much room for sleep.  Or movies.  Or fun.  Or anything, really.  But while I'm procrastinating, I thought I'd pop on and share a short story I wrote for my creative writing class last month.  I wrote it while out-of-state for my Pap's funeral, and I honestly hated the finished project.  (And I think you could tell that because I had SOOO many grammatical mistakes.)  But I read it again today, and I realized it wasn't all that bad, yada, yada, yada.  So I thought I'd fill this blog with something, and here we are...
I don't know why any of you would do this if any of you will read this, but obviously please don't post this anywhere else or copy it/take credit for it.  I work pretty hard on my stories (after all, they're homework/grades) and yeah...
Sorry I suck.  

The Old Man
The gravestone was a simple one, bearing only the necessities: name, date, and the symbol that indicated his service.  The symbol surprised him: never had they known of his service.  Except for the small bouquet of violets and lilies placed on the side of the tombstone, one would be led to believe that the man had always been alone.  They’d always wondered that, if he had anyone.  Of course, no one had cared enough to ask, fearing what might happen if they became too attached.  Now Matthew regretted it.  Did he have anyone to mourn him?  To tend his plot?  To think about him?  He looked down at the grave and back up, searching for his wife and daughter standing a few tombstones away.  He knew they were watching him, and so indicated to them it would be a while.  Once they turned around and started walking away, Matthew bent down and began pulling up the weeds that threatened to engulf the small gravestone, completely forgetting the dampness of the grass or the fact that his suit was new.
            “I spoke about it today.”  Matthew was surprised to hear the words come out of his mouth but found he couldn’t stop the flow of words.  “It was…well, it was difficult, to say the least.  I’ve been putting it off for a while, actually.”  He imagined the old man nodding slightly, seemingly not listening.  But Matt new better.  The old man always listened, whether you were looking for someone to or not.  That was one of the many aspects Matt had secretly admired him for. 

            “It was harder than I expected…you know, I changed my name.  After the war, after I moved to the States.  I wanted a new identity, a new life.  So I changed it to Matthew.  Not a big change, I know.  But it was enough for me to hide behind.”
            He imagined the old man gently chiding him.  “Mathias, don’t change the subject.  Speak your mind child, but don’t dawdle on unnecessary details.”
            Matt smiled.  “But I promise this is on topic.  I changed it because…I changed it because I hated my past.  I wanted nothing to do with it.  I didn’t want anyone to know.  I thought about converting.  I hated…myself.”  He picked another weed, then covered up the hole made by it.  “I’m ashamed, Onkel.  I realize that now.”  Matt stopped and sat back on his heels, looking up at the sky and remembering.  “You know, today’s the first time I’ve spoken more than a few words in German.  I tried to forget that, too.  I tried to forget everything.
“I lived in Rhode Island for the longest time, studied journalism.  I met a girl named Susan out on the job one day.  We’ve been married for fifty years next Tuesday.”  He smiled.  “Our little girl, Danielle—well, she’s not so little anymore—she was the one that helped me.  I never told Susan about any of it.  But one day, Danielle came home from school and asked me about it.  Not me specifically, but the war in general.  I got scared, mad.  For so long I had been safe and no one knew.  But now my daughter, my own daughter, was going to unwind it all.”  Matthew absentmindedly brushed his fingers against the engraving in the stone.
“It wasn’t easy to tell them.  It wasn’t easy to tell myself.  I was stiff and lifeless for months.  I retreated inside myself.  Susan almost left me.  But one day, I looked at Danielle and realized I had survived, and she deserved to know.”  He stopped and took a deep breath, trying to stop the tears before they spilled down his face.  With a clear of his throat, he began again.
“At first, it was hard to write.  I couldn’t find the right words, I’d slip into German, I’d start crying.  This was all new to Susan as well; as far as she knew, I had lived in America for most of my life and only spoke English.  We’d fight over the fact that I had hidden another life from her.  But gradually she quit trying to understand and just let me work it out with myself.
“I haven’t been here in Germany since I left it in ’46.  Not even when I was writing.  I didn’t want to come back.”
“Why, Mathias?  What were you afraid of?”  He imagined the old man asking him this without looking up, still giving off an air of not caring.  But Matt wasn’t intimidated and pushed through, used to the attitude of the old man. 
“I was unburying a part of myself, but I didn’t want to bring it all back at once.”  Matt sighed and began pulling the weeds again.
“While I wrote, I remembered things I had suppressed and thought I had forgotten.  Even simple things like names and dates startled me.  I had no clue my brain had rebelled and remembered so much.  This, too, set me back.  All this time I thought I had been living a new, easy life.  But the brain never truly forgets something so traumatic...”  He trailed off, carefully picking out his next words.
“Before the war, I was a child.  Death never happened.  To me, life was permanent and death was an old wives’ tale.  But the war changed that.  The first time I saw someone shot, I was in shock for days.  How could humanity be so perverted?  But the more and more it happened, the number I became.  I saw neighbors, friends, enemies, and important Jewish figures assaulted, tormented, and killed.”  Matt laughed bitterly.  “Now-a-days, experts say my generation was forced to grow up.  Do you think that’s true?”  He paused and contemplated the question.  “I suppose so.  Children shouldn’t see the kind of things I did.”
He shook himself, trying to clear the haunted memories the topic brought up.  “Anyway, I remembered details I wasn’t aware I had remembered.  One of them…one of them was you.  And I made a connection.  I never realized I had known you before.  I thought I had just come across you in the camp…You were the nicest one in the whole place.”  Matt furrowed his brow.  “No, nicest isn’t the right word.  You were the most human one.  Or, as human as one could be.
“When I spoke today, I told them how you watched over a few of us, always made sure we had food and a chance of survival.  I…I never thank you; I was too scared.  I told them all how you told us the ways of the camps.  Rules came in short sentences.  ‘Don’t drink the water.’  ‘Stay away from the fence.’  ‘Hold on to that bread.’  ‘Don’t show them you’re weak.’  We all called you Onkel because you were the closest we had to family.”
Matt stopped, choked up by his tears.  After a few deep breaths, he continued.  “No matter how many memories I buried, at night they all came back.  So many times, I saw you being led away to the gas chambers that horrible day.  We never saw you again.  But your face was so calm.”  Matthew cleared his throat.  “I never let myself cry about it until now.  You were so strong, even though you were so old.  You’re the reason I survived.  It’s because of you that I have Susan and Danielle and my family.  The other boys, I don’t know about them.  We lost contact after the last transport…I don’t even know if they survived.  But I hope they realize what you did for us.”
Matt took one last deep breath and wiped the tears from his eyes.  “I realize now that death isn’t forever because someone will always go on remembering.  When I’m not here, Danielle will remember, and hopefully her children and their children and so on.  One day I’ll get to thank you in person.  But for now, this will have to do.  So thank you, Onkel.”  He stood up and felt his wife’s arm around his shoulder and his daughter’s hand holding his.  Susan reached up and kissed his cheek.
“Are you ready to go, dear?”

Matt smiled at his wife.  “Just about.”  He reached down and pulled the last weed.  Smiling, he turned around and, with his wife on one arm and his daughter on the other, said, “How would you like to see downtown Berlin?  It was always beautiful this time of year.”

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