By the time I was eight, I had seen more dead people than any other kid I knew in Gloucester City, New Jersey. I blame my German family for this offensive slap to my childhood innocence. We had a large clan, older than most. And when they died, we attended more wakes and funerals in their honor than I’d care to remember.
Every Sunday after early Mass, we’d drive to Egg Harbor to see Papa’s mother, Oma Mary. I never liked going to Oma’s. Her street reminded me of a war zone in Eastern Europe. No one came outside, not even the kids. Plus, we didn’t know what to expect once we got there. Most of the time, Oma would greet us at the door, looking sourpussed as usual. But on the days she wore her black dress and thick-heeled shoes, I knew something bad had happened. And as sure as snow, once we went inside, a dead body would be resting in an open casket right there in the living room.
On one of those Sundays in March of ’46, we piled into Papa’s 1942 Plymouth and headed to Oma’s. Me, Mama, Papa, and my two older sisters, Kate and Woolsey. Woolsey was sixteen when I was born—Kate, fourteen. During my younger days, whenever Mama introduced me to other people, she’d refer to me as her “little surprise.” Why would she call me that? Because I was the only boy and the last one to join the Mueller family? That’s what I told myself. But I didn’t know for sure. My sisters had funny looks on their faces each time Mama said it.
I had the feeling something was wrong that day we drove through the woods on the White Horse Pike. Everyone was quiet. No one looked me in the eye. What did they know that I didn’t?
When we pulled up in front of Oma’s house, Papa, Kate and Woolsey jumped out of the car and started up the walkway. Mama, who was sitting in front, told me to stay in the car. She turned around, rested her arm on top of the seat.
“Carl, honey,” she said, like she was going to cry, “there’s something you should know before we go inside.” Here it comes. I wanted to shut my eyes and make her and this whole godforsaken place disappear at the same time. Instead, I squinted at Mama, like I was some tough guy I’d seen in the movies, and waited for her to speak.
“Oma’s dead,” Mama said. “She went last night in her sleep.”
In my short twelve years on the planet, I never thought people could die while sleeping. It seemed like another one of God’s dirty tricks. I picture some kid getting ready to go to bed. His mama tucks him in. He smiles and closes his eyes to sleep. Then—BAM—he’s gone. No more baseball. Or Saturday matinees at the movies. Or coke floats at the soda fountain. What a gyp . . .
Even months later, I still feel weird some nights at bedtime. I have questions about living and dying I know Papa or Mama can’t answer. As for Oma, I can only think of one good reason for her passing. It was her turn—plain and simple.
I pressed my face against the car window and looked up at Oma’s three-story house, with its white wood siding and fancy pediment over the door. For a long while, Oma lived there with her two sisters, Helene and Dora. But I don’t remember them much. I was little when they passed. They might have even died in their bedrooms for all I know. Just like Oma. But even though they’re dead and buried, it feels like their spirits are still upstairs, floating from room to room as if nothing had changed.
Mama took out her handkerchief to blot her tears as we got out of the car. I didn’t understand her blubbering. I wasn’t that sad or upset. My concerns were of a more practical nature. Now that Oma was gone, would we still have to drive to Egg Harbor every weekend?
When we opened the door to Oma’s house, we were blasted with the all-too-familiar smell of sauerkraut, hot dogs and spiced honey mustard. Mama took one step to the right, then walked through the large archway into the dreaded living room. I stood behind, my feet planted like blocks of concrete on the hardwood floor. I nervously looked up at the ceiling, wondering what to do next. My eyes drifted toward the casket beneath the living room window. Yep—she was there all right, just as I had expected. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to wait too long for Mama. After Mama paid her respects, we followed the trail of loud voices that spilled into the hallway from the large eat-in kitchen. Everyone was either sitting or hovering over the table. They passed around plates piled high with food and glass mugs filled to the brim with German beer. The Mueller version of Oktoberfest.
In the 1850s, Egg Harbor was a German town through and through. Most people got along okay—until World War II. Once the war ended, the non-Germans had a hard time trusting anyone from Germany. Some folks from Egg Harbor even changed their German-sounding names to blend in with everyone else. I might have done the same thing if it kept me out of trouble.
I stood by the kitchen doorway, watching them as they puffed their cigarettes and stuffed their faces with bratwurst and coleslaw. Aunt Trudy, Papa’s older sister, sat at one end of the table, her beer-soaked smile set off by one gold tooth. “C’mere, Carl,” my aunt said, her words slurred. “Let me get you something to eat.” Each time I saw Aunt Trudy, she looked like a different person. This Sunday, she wore her hair up on both sides of her head in two sausage-style rolls. Everyone got silly and said she looked like Rosalind Russell. If they asked me, I’d have said her hair looked like a nest for gerbils.
Aunt Trudy’s hungry eyes gawked at me as I stepped forward. “Are you getting taller, Carl?” she said, her lips smacking as she chewed a mouthful of food. “You look taller.”
I shook my head. “N-no, not really.”
“What grade are you in now?” she said.
“Sixth,” I mumbled, thinking: Why do older people always ask us kids such stupid questions?
Aunt Trudy handed me a heaping plateful of food that looked like the marbled insides of some dead animal. “I can’t eat all this,” I said, frowning.
“Sure you can. You’re a growing boy.” She slid to one side of her chair, patting the empty spot beside her. “Sit,” she said, grinning. I shook my head from side to side. No way in hell. I turned toward the hallway.
I suppose some kids might enjoy attention from a bunch of grown-ups. Not me. In my family, you tried to stay out of plain view as much as possible. If you didn’t, you were an easy mark for just about anything. They’d ask you to do all sorts of things, just because you were in their line of sight.
You want me to peel potatoes? I thought, the first time Mama cornered me in the kitchen. Papa never peeled potatoes. It was “woman’s work.” I agree. Growing boys should be outside playing ball, not cooped up in the house doing chores with their Mamas.
I walked down the long corridor with the plate in my hands, and looked for a place to sit. I couldn’t go outside; it was too cold and wet, even under the covered porch. The kitchen was like a bus depot at Christmas—too noisy and crowded for my taste. Where else could I go? To one of the three bedrooms upstairs? They were creepy and smelled of mothballs. I could sit on the hard floor in the drafty hallway, but that didn’t sound too great either. The living room was my only resort.
I went through the archway and sat on the curvy-backed sofa, as my eyes fought the lure of the open coffin placed directly across from where I sat. The coffin, as big as a boat, took up most of the space in the small room, so it was hard not to stare. I balanced the plate on my knees, took a peek at Oma, my curiosity getting the best of me. She looked like a wax figure I’d seen at the carnival, only her face was covered with a thick layer of makeup. Her round body, framed in puffy white satin, looked as if on a cloud. I kept thinking she’d sit up any minute and yell at me for eating in the living room. The mind’s a funny trickster, isn’t it?
The room was as quiet as a mausoleum. There were vases of flowers everywhere, making the air too heavy and sweet. My head ached all over. I hoped the rain would let up so I could go outside and get away from all this shit.
Would I miss Oma? We never got to know each other very well. I hardly understood what she said since she spoke German most of the time. I guess it doesn’t make much difference to me now that she’s gone. I’ll miss her cooking, though. She made the best potato dumplings and apple strudel.
“What are you doing here by yourself?” Startled, I heard someone speaking to me from the darkened hallway—my second cousin, Greta Schultz.
“I dunno,” I said, shrugging my shoulders, and staring into her soft blue eyes. She looked like an angel from heaven. And she smelled good, too. Like powdered sugar and peach blossoms.
“I’ve got something for you,” she said, cheerful-like. Whenever Greta came around, she always gave me something—ten, fifteen cents—sometimes even a quarter. She and her husband, Fritz, were much younger than Papa or Mama and didn’t have any kids of their own. Come to think of it, that’s probably why she had so much money to spare.
I thanked her for the gift, feeling a little shy and tongue-tied, then stared into my plate of half-eaten food, which looked disgusting. “It’s too bad about Oma,” Greta said. “Are you doing okay?”
“She died,” I said. “Can’t do much about that.” Greta was the best of the Muellers, in my opinion. Kind, generous and, like Uncle Bud used to say, “a real dish.” But I still didn’t want to talk with her, in spite of her admirable qualities.
“You look tired,” she said, brushing a few locks of hair off my forehead. “Why don’t you go upstairs and take a little nap?”
Upstairs? Are you kidding me? I’d rather eat nails than go up there by myself. Still, I didn’t want Greta to know I was afraid. But I swear the last time I walked into one of those bedrooms, I saw my dead Aunt Dora standing by the dresser. “I think it stopped raining,” I said, hoping Greta wouldn’t ask any more questions. “I’m going outside.”
Greta stood up, brushing out the wrinkles from her full skirt. “All right, Carl,” she said. “Maybe you’ll find someone out there to play with.” When Greta left the room, I glanced over at Oma. What a way to end your life, in Jersey, of all places. Unlike my grandmother, I had great hopes for my future. Big dreams. Like pitching for the Yankees. Or taking a freighter across the Atlantic. And the sooner I got on with them, the better.
I closed the front door and walked out onto the porch. No one was outside. The houses stood tall, like grave markers against the gray sky. I walked down the steps, pausing in front of Oma’s house. Earthworms had popped out from the rich soil from under the maple trees and were inching their way across the cracked pavement. As I headed toward the corner, I squished one by accident, its insides coloring the concrete a reddish-brown. I stopped to look at what I had done, then walked on, this time, watching where I stepped.
Across the street was an old farmhouse, built around 1900. A kid about my age came out the front door. He was taller and thinner than me and wore overalls under his jacket. Our eyes met in a cold stare from the short distance away. He walked up to me and stood real close. “You’re not from ’round here,” he said, tilting his head to the side. “What’s your name?”
“Carl Mueller,” I said, hoping he’d take my smile as a friendly gesture. “My Grandma Oma just died.”
“Yeah, I heard. I’m Herbert Becker. Call me H.B. We just moved in two weeks ago.”
“You wanna do something?” I said.
“The woods is at the end of this street. We’ll go there.” We went past the line of houses until the pavement stopped by a forest of evergreens and oak trees beginning to bud. I walked two paces behind him as we headed into the forest, along a narrow path covered with soggy leaves. H.B. grabbed onto a dead branch and cracked it against the side of a tree. The sound punched a hole in the peaceful silence surrounding us and I didn’t like it. I wanted him to stop, but kept my mouth shut. “D’ya ever go hunting?” H.B said. “I’ve got my own Winchester.”
“I’d rather play ball,” I said. Gun talk made me nervous. I’d heard too many of Uncle Bud’s war stories. No one needed to remind me of the number of people who died because of guns. It was something I tried hard to forget.
“You come here a lot?” I said, changing the subject.
“Yeah, I do. Especially when my old man’s on a bender. He’s a mean drunk.”
We stopped by a small creek and sat on an old tree trunk lying on its side. A crow, perched on some branches, cawed overhead. H.B. leaned over and scooped up a golf ball-sized rock from the ground. “Bet you can’t hit it,” he said, handing me the stone. I stared at the crow, not knowing what to do. If I refused the dare, he’d laugh or give me a hard time. But I certainly didn’t want to hurt the bird either.
When it comes to baseball, I’m the best pitcher in our division. I knew I could hit the crow dead-on, but in this case, I’d have to fake it. Put on an act for this poor bastard. I shot H.B. a look of confidence, then walked over to a spot where I had the best view. Focusing on my target, I aimed about two degrees off its right side, then hurled the rock in the air.
“You missed,” he cackled. “You couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with a bazooka!” He popped up beside me, holding an even larger rock in his hand, and waited a minute or two until another crow came along.
“Step aside. I’ll show you how it’s done.” He coiled his arm behind his back like he was winding up for a pitch. Beads of sweat formed above his upper lip, which he licked with his tongue. After he let the rock fly, I heard a pop. The black bird fell from the tree, bouncing off a few branches before it finally hit the ground. “Bullseye,” he said.
I stared at the dead crow with its mussed up wing feathers, twisted neck and black marble eyes looking in my direction. “You killed it,” I said, stepping back.
“Yeah . . . so?”
“It’s not right.” I turned away, feeling sick.
“Well, you took a shot, didn’t you?” he said, sneering.
“Yeah, because you dared me to.”
“You wanna know what I think?” The force of his voice pushed against my face like a strong wind. “I think you’re a coward. You’d never make a good soldier.”
Boy, was this guy getting on my nerves. “It’s a crow, H.B., not a Nazi.” I picked up a small branch from the ground and used it to scoop up the lifeless bird. I set the bird under a tree by the creek, hoping it wouldn’t be bothered by anything else. “I’m going.”
“That’s a good idea,” H.B. said, raising his voice. “You go on back to your Mommy.” I headed down the path, wondering if I was really a coward like he had said. I never thought of myself that way. The kids on my team called me the most feared player in our league. No matter. I’m sure he’d change his mind about me if he stood at the batter’s end of my curveball.
It started raining hard as soon as I left the woods and turned onto St. Louis Avenue. I ran down the street, up to Oma’s porch, opened the front door and walked down the hall into the kitchen, my shoes squishing with every step. Everyone was loaded and louder than before. I guessed they’d been drinking on and off for hours. Some played cards while others gathered around the upright piano singing “Over There,” an all-time favorite during those war years. Even Cousin Stumpy joined in, playing the slide whistle while keeping time with his one good foot.
I was reminded of V-E day in ‘45, ten months before. We ran to the street cheering and waving our flags to celebrate the best news we’d had in years. The war was finally over and our men were coming home. When our Uncle Bud returned from his four year tour in Europe, we hung a welcome banner for him from one side of the narrow street to the other. Thanks for serving our country, Bud. You were one of our many courageous soldiers.
“Carl, come join us,” Aunt Trudy said, waving me over with her hand. Oh, crap. She caught me before I had the chance to hide. Now, I’d have to sit with them and listen to their stories about the “good old days.” See what I mean about an easy mark?
An hour later, Father Paul came over to conduct the Rosary service in the living room. He stood by Oma’s coffin while everyone kneeled down on the braided carpet, waiting for him to begin. I stayed in the back, ready for a quick getaway in case I couldn’t take it any longer. From where I stood, I could see what everyone in the room was doing. The way they were kneeling around Father Paul made them look short and funny, like a bunch of munchkins gathered in front of a very tall Oz. I laughed a little. Good thing Papa didn’t see me smiling. I’d never hear the end of it from him on the way home.
Once Father Paul began praying aloud, the room got as quiet as a cold night in winter. “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . .” he began. His deep voice flooded the space around us. This must be what God sounds like, I thought, my eyes rolling up toward the ceiling. Father Paul continued as I glanced at Mama now and then, at the way her thumb pushed the rosary beads forward with every “Glory Be,” and each “Hail Mary.” She looked paler and a little older than the day before, like she aged overnight. Her wavy brown hair was streaked with gray and a new wrinkle had carved its way across her forehead. It made me wonder if she was running out of time herself. And if she’d leave us in her sleep, like Oma. When the service ended, everyone returned to the kitchen for more eating and drinking, until well after midnight when we all went to bed. We had our own places to sleep—I was stuck in the attic with the rest of my family. Mama put an old blanket on the floor for me to use as a mattress. I lay there with a quilt tucked under my chin, watching the shadows march across the walls like Death’s army circling our camp in search of its next victim. If only I could sleep in my own bed.
The next morning was Oma’s funeral. Still half asleep, I put on the suit I wore for my Confirmation and went downstairs. Papa closed Oma’s coffin and carried it into the hearse with five other pallbearers. We followed the hearse in our cars to the cemetery, then walked behind the pallbearers past a thicket of evergreens to the grave site. Old headstones, dated a century before, marked our way into the clearing. I stayed behind to read one of the inscriptions written in 1821: I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.
I know there wasn’t a war back then from the history books I’d read at school. This poor sap was just an Average Joe, who had never seen the darker side of any battlefield. I stepped away from the headstone and thought about my future. When I grow up, will I have to fight for everything as well?
“Come here, Carl,” I heard Papa calling from across the way. “We’re waiting for you.” I ran over and stood in the back behind everyone else. Oma’s coffin was sitting on the ground beside a large hole. After Father Paul said the blessing, the pallbearers hoisted the box into the ground using straps threaded through handles on both sides of the coffin. Once the casket touched the dirt, the men pulled out the straps and walked back to the group.
During this part of the ceremony, I kept hearing a steady squeak from somewhere in the crowd, like the kind a dog makes when its hurt. Scanning the crowd, I noticed my Auntie Bess, Papa’s youngest sister, pushing her way toward the front, wailing and carrying on.
Most of what I know about Auntie Bess comes from conversations I’ve overheard at home during dinner. Mama used to say Auntie Bess was “one dish short of a place setting.” It seems Bess went off the deep end after her husband was killed in the war, but I got the feeling they all thought she was a little off from the beginning.
Auntie Bess rushed past the others, her hands and feet flying in every direction. Too fast for the likes of my family, she leaped into the gravesite, landed with a thud on top of Oma’s coffin, and wrapped her arms around the box, hugging it like it was somebody she hadn’t seen in years.
Everyone stared at her with their mouths open as Auntie Bess cried, “Mama don’t leave me!” She was making such a ruckus, I cover my ears with both hands. Three pallbearers pulled her out of the hole, then dragged her off to the side. Papa, fed up with his sister’s hysterics, left the gravesite, with us following close behind like ducklings scrambling after their mama.
We filed into the car in silence. Papa looked at Mama crossly and said, “Don’t say anything about Bess.” I hadn’t seen him this mad in a long time—since Mama’s brother, Denny, borrowed our car and drove it into a ditch. I never got the whole story when it happened, but knowing our Uncle Denny, I’d bet he was pretty soused way before his stubby fingers ever touched the steering wheel.
When we got to Oma’s, some ladies from the church had set up a huge spread of food for us in the kitchen. I grabbed a ham sandwich and a bottle of Coca-Cola and ran outside. I sat on the porch swing—relieved I didn’t have to listen to them talking about the funeral service or my crazy Auntie Bess.
I drank a swig of Coke and thought again about never seeing Oma again. Even though she was gone for good, I still remember the times I spent with her at Egg Harbor. They’re in my mind’s eye, like tiny pictures in a View-Master. But instead of looking at the Grand Canyon with each click of the toy’s photo reel, I see shots of Oma picking lilacs or kneading dough. Is that all that’s left of someone’s life now past? A reel of tiny pictures we play again and again inside our heads to keep us from feeling lonely?
A robin sang from the neighbor’s tree, its whistle a happy reminder of warmer days and baseball games yet to come. I pressed my feet on the wooden deck, setting the swing in motion. The sun peeked out through the rainclouds, dusting the street with soft patterns of light. It looked like a small bit of heaven right there on St. Louis Avenue. Are you up there, Oma? I chewed a bite of my sandwich, took another sip of Coke, and wondered . . .