In Which We Revisit A Moment Alive And Lost

This is the second installment of guest contributor Yvonne Georgina Puig’s 3-part series on visiting her grandmother in Houston. You can read part one here. The third part is here.

Couple On Beach

Couple on Beach by Alex Colville

Are You My Granddaughter?

by Yvonne Georgina Puig

Hedwig Village, where I grew up in Houston, is not in fact a village.

It is .9 square miles of flat, wooded neighborhood, set among three other similar and indistinguishable “villages.” Oma lives in Piney Point Village. I went to elementary school in Bunker Hill Village. My mother used to teach in Hunter’s Creek Village. I ride my bike to Oma’s house through these “villages” and note, in the eight years I’ve lived away, how little has changed. The woman two doors over still stands in place on her front lawn, watering the St. Augustine and peddling gossip. Teenagers in jacked-up 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 comprise a community where good ol’ boys with questionable Enron ties share property lines with gray-beards in khaki jumpsuits, where quiet modernist gems….

Good

… are leveled in favor of monuments to the marriage of new money and poor taste.

Bad

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 towering faux-Tuscan 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 “ornery,” 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 that 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 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 great-grandmother, 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 oldest and 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 lost. 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.

Fritz

Fritz

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 after, 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.

Battle Of The Java Sea

Battle of the Java Sea

The stories are not 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. “So handsome!” she exclaims. She wishes I could have known him, and I do too. I tell her what scattered memories I do have, of him throwing a beachball to me in the backyard, of him, after he got sick, shuffling across her living room in a plaid robe and a pair of slippers with sailboats on the top.

Oma Opa

Oma and Opa

To this day, Oma puts cotton balls in her ears during thunderstorms, dreams of the war. If she loses these memories, I worry that she’ll lose herself. When I think of the possibility that she’ll lose Opa, I stop short.
Tom Cruise is on Oprah now, so the conversation turns to Oma’s devoted crush on Paul Newman, our mutual soft-spot for blue eyes, and boys in general. “Don’t make them jealous,” Oma says, then raises her shoulders. “Well, maybe a little bit.” We conclude that Tom Cruise, while cute in Risky Business, is no Robert Redford.

Paul Newman

Yes.

So Beautiful

And yes.

Later, as I’m leaving, she lets me ring the big bronze dinner bell by her front door, a treasure unearthed from beneath her childhood garage. On the ride home, I pass beneath old oaks and razed lots where I remember old oaks to have been. The woman two doors down is pulling into her driveway when I get home, and I think of the time she called my mother after a thunderstorm. The power had been out for a few hours. “What is going on here?” she said, angry. “It’s like we’re living in a third-world country.”

Yvonne Georgina Puig is a contributor to This Recording. She also (wo)mans the lovely It Was Evening All Afternoon, where you can indulge your raging girlcrush on her. She is a writer living in Austin, Texas; her work has appeared in Anthem, The Austin Chronicle, The Austin American-Statesman, GOOD Magazine, Metromix and Variety.

Are You My Granddaughter? Part One

Are You My Granddaughter? Part Three

Yvonne

chilly scenes of winter

“Real Love” (acoustic) – John Lennon (mp3)

“Honky Tonkin'” – Hank Williams, Sr. (mp3)]

“Pale Blue Eyes” – Lou Reed (mp3)

“Always Returning” – Brian Eno (mp3)

PREVIOUSLY ON THIS RECORDING

Robots have no memories.

This is not about Sex and the City.

This is about Sex and the City.

11 thoughts on “In Which We Revisit A Moment Alive And Lost

  1. I was born in Houston and lived my first three years in one of those “quiet modernist gems.” I would hate to go back to the old neighborhood and see what’s become of it. This is an amazing series, your grandmother has lived an incredible life and the world is better for having had her story told here.

  2. For a few weeks, I was doing my clinical skills rotations in a nursing home. I was supposed to go and do a full medical history and a full physical exam on one patient each afternoon. Every single time I did it I cried, in the room, right in front of the patient. Like your grandmother, they all talked about the war a lot, even though most had been in America, and a few of them talked about their great loves, and how their 60 year marriages had ended with someone deteriorating and becoming unrecognizable. Every single patient reminded me of one of my grandparents. It was ok that I was crying because most of them were also sort of blind, so as long as I was quiet they couldn’t tell that I was crying, which was good because crying in front of your patient is so totally unprofesh. By the time we finished the history part of the interview, I was always too emotionally exhausted to do the physical, so I just half-heartedly listened to the person’s heart, or whatever, and then left. Anyway, I am really liking this series, TR. Getting old is the saddest and most personal thing in the world.

  3. It is such a rare and unexpected pleasure to see older people (loved ones) with fresh eyes. I love this piece.

  4. Such incredible war stories. Just as 9/11 will be this generation’s marker, WW11 is the event that has had the most impact on the lives of the previous generation. Gerda’s life has had so much variety. How strange a path that would take her to Piney Point, Houston, at this stage in life.

  5. What a beautiful tribute to your grandmother!!Your descriptions are so well crafted, and it is evident how much she means to you. I hope you will continue writing and create a book for publication. Reading this reminds me of Tuesdays with Morrie. Keep writing!!

  6. Personally knowing your family and then reading this beautiful, heart-felt, fascinating story of your grandma’s life has been so touching. I agree wholeheartedly with another comment. Keep writing and make this into a book. it’s wonderful reading. Love and Light, Judy Kajander

  7. This is gorgeous! So spare and sincere. The piece–as many have already commented here–is uncommon for its bare bones. By not sensationalizing Oma or her life, or being over-dramatic, the story turns out to be expecially beautiful, heart-stopping and impactful.

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