I couldn’t pry my eyes away from the wrinkled skin of
It could have been somebody’s zip code, guiding letters, bills, and tons of junk mail to people’s houses. It could bring birthday greetings and Christmas cards, and sometimes it could deliver news that we just don’t want to hear. It might show where a lot of people live when it’s
on an envelope, with a stamp parked neatly in the corner.
But this number wasn’t on an envelope. It didn’t delight anyone with news about a new baby or winning the lottery. It had nothing to do with where people lived. It’s tattooed on an old woman’s arm, and it’s from a camp of torture where a lot of people died. And like always, when I visited my grandmother at the nursing home this afternoon, the number hypnotized me.
Oma snored lightly, and my eyes lingered on those five digits on her translucent skin, almost transparent in the overhead industrial lighting. They told me more than
she ever had about her time in Auschwitz. And I had tried. I’d ask her about the camps, she’d talk to me about tents. I’d mention Nazis, she’d bring up the National Guard. I’d say something about gas chambers, she’d talk about the rising prices at the gas pump.
So, I stood staring at the number on her arm and at the scar from a deep gash right in front of the “2.” Puddles formed under my arms when I thought about why I was there. Visiting was never fun – more like a
grandson’s obligation. But today the stakes were high. My
fingers played with the frayed edge of the pink blanket, and then my gaze wandered up to her face. She was staring at me with eyes like warm, blue ice. I almost peed myself.
“Jeez, Oma! You trying to scare me to death? When
did you wake up?”
The eyes sparkled. “You’d prefer maybe that I did
“Not funny. When you leave here, you should maybe be a stand-up comic.”
Her long fingers guided a wisp of white hair behind
her ear, and the scar that stretched from the corner of her left eye down to her mouth glared at me. I looked away, and when Oma shifted in the bed, the strong smell of her gardenia-scented bath soap washed over me like a tidal wave. My sneakers squealed on the tile floor when I shifted from foot to foot.
I looked back at her face. She stared at me hard.
“Something on your mind, child. I can always see it. That crooked little grin gets even crookeder.”
The time had come – now or never. I crossed my arms over my chest. “Well, actually, yes…” I heard – and hated – the squeak in my voice.
“Speak.” She took my hand in both of hers. They felt weak but warm.
“It’s like this, Oma. In social studies class we’re starting a unit on…well, on World War II…and I was wondering…”
Her gaze shifted to the window, and she dropped my hand. “You ever notice that window looks out on nothing?” I looked over at the window but didn’t answer. How could a window look out on nothing? The room grew quiet except for the humming of the fluorescent lights. Finally she sighed and said, “You mean you’re going to study the Jews.” She blinked rapid fire about five times.
“Yeah, well… I just wondered if I could ask you some questions, sort of interview you.” Her lunch tray with its remnants caught my eye. The lime Jell-O looked sort of like bright green puke. And the chicken…well, I appreciated the gardenia smell.
“Interview me? You think maybe I’m a movie star? This is a fancy spa I’m relaxing in instead of a place where old people come to finish out their days? With this
broken-down junk they call furniture?” Her skinny hand
pointed across the room. “Look at that dresser with the drawer that won’t close, so it looks like it’s always sticking its tongue at me!”
I turned to the dresser and almost stuck my tongue back out at it. This wasn’t going exactly like I had hoped. I tried to get a grip. “You know, you could tell me some things about what it was like.”
“What it was like? Why a teacher would want kids today to know what it was like, I’ll never understand.” She looked back to me, but the eyes had stopped sparkling. “No, child. Some things are better left in the past.”
My stomach twisted and turned, and I pushed my sleeves up a little. Oma’s hands shook, and her scar jutted out like a welt against her pale skin. That couldn’t be good for her health. And I had done this why? Because some cool kids back at school were depending on me to come
up with a killer project because I had a grandma who had
survived Auschwitz? Really? My hand reached for hers. It felt cold as snow. Her eyes – cloudy now – looked through me, and it sounded like she was breathing underwater. Little drops of drool spilled out of the corner of her mouth next to the scar.
“But, Oma…just a few questions…”
“No!” The thunder in her voice made me jump. First that she would shout at me and second that she was strong enough to shout at all. “No! For that you must look elsewhere.” She shook her head back and forth. “Oh, Markus, this has been my burden alone all these years. It would be a sin to unload it on my only grandchild now!” Her gaze dropped to her chest.
“Oma, I didn’t mean…” I didn’t have a clue how to
finish the sentence. What did I mean?
“Leave it alone, child! So many things you are better off never knowing about.” My skin prickled when I saw a tear run along her scar like a drop of water terrified of being consumed by the desert. “Please, leave it alone.”
Then she closed her eyes and turned away. I knew that the interview had ended. And her breath still came in rasps.
I tiptoed into the bathroom so I wouldn’t have to swing by the gas station on the way home, and I stopped at the mirror. The little kid peering back at me looked so different from Oma in her bed. I figured that someday I would have her white hair, but for now, I pushed the reddish-brown mess away from my face and hooked it behind my ears. I looked at my cheek. No scar there. And when I pictured Oma in the bed in the next room, I saw guilt in those ridiculous green eyes glaring back at me accusingly. I loosened my hair again and let it fall in my face.