|| Note: This is a post for my Opa, whom I’ve written about many times in the past. (See The pitfalls of downhill roller skating or While my Opa was sleeping, or Dies ist Opa.) He died Jan. 6 after suffering for several years with Alzheimer’s disease. He was a jovial, outgoing sprite of a man whom most people describe as a character. He spent as much time creating life stories as he did telling them. Even at his foggiest, he could captivate a small audience, albeit by then most of his tales were wildly embellished or completely untrue. When it became clear that his star in this world was fading, I began the subconscious process of squirreling away memories — both significant and slight. The one you’re about to read falls under the second category. I’m not sure why it floated to the surface. Memories are like dreams sometimes. When they roll in you must abide. ||
A memory: I’m seven, maybe eight years old. I’m holding a coffee can that has two holes punched through the tin. An old shoelace is knotted through each hole to form a kind of coffee can necklace. It’s hot out. July, maybe. I’m in Upstate New York, wearing purple jelly sandals and a tank top. My arms are browning under the midday sun. My tongue is stained with blueberries.
I hand the coffee can to Opa.
I loop it around his neck like I’m crowning him with a gold medal after a long race. It dangles against his chest like a clumsy locket. Inside the can is motor oil, or at least I think it’s motor oil. It’s thick and black and Opa won’t let me touch it.
“Dees is dirty stuff,” he says, as he plucks a beetle from a raspberry bush and drops it into the can.
I trail closely behind him. My sisters too. The air smells like grass and manure. The breeze is subtle, but my hair is fine and flies away easily. We’re in my Oma’s garden, a large unshaded plot divided into neat rows of cucumbers, zucchinis, tomatoes and berries. We’re inching our way through bushes, my sisters and I, our shadows following Opa’s shadow, our legs burning from thorn pricks.
The farmers next door are making long passes in the field behind us. We’re used to the smell of manure, but we shrivel our noses and pee-eww it anyway.
One-by-one Opa drops a beetle into his can, sending the insect into a sad deathspin.
“Dees tings are terrible,” he says. “They are always nibbling on your Oma’s plants. They must go. You see vair they nibbled already? Terrible tings.”
Plunk. Plunk. Plunk. Beetle after beetle lands in the coffee can. We are neither horrified nor impressed by this massacre. It is simply a means of pest control, tedious and effective.
We pitch in, pinching beetles off bushes and dropping them into the can. Slowly we make our way through the garden, row after row, bush after bush. We shuffle closely behind him, three girls with round, red faces doing something not out of obligation or guilt or punishment, but out of curiosity. We are young and accustomed to just being, a state of mind you don’t fully appreciate until you’re older and less present.
Oma calls us inside. Her head hangs out the kitchen window. Do we want strawberry shortcake, she asks.
“Of course vee do,” Opa answers for us.
We’re stuffed from raspberries and blueberries and actually too full for shortcake, but we accept the offer anyway. We make our way out of the garden, stopping to deposit the coffee can in Opa’s workshop.
Oma lays a checkered tablecloth on the picnic table and pulls up a folding chair for Opa. He takes a seat, claps his hands together and smiles. She hands him a tall dark beer in a heavy stein.
“Vell,” he says. “Vee got a lot of beetles.”
She hands him a plate of strawberries and cream.
“Did you girls help Opa?” She asks with a pleasant smirk.
We nod our heads in unison as three plates of strawberries and cream slide under our chins.
“Meine girls vorked up an appetite,” Opa says, whipped cream on his lips.
I’m bloated and I can tell my sisters are too, but we know better than to not clean our plates, so we plunge our forks into the shortcake and describe for Oma, between bites, our afternoon plans to stage a theatrical production involving several choreographed dance routines to a Tchaikovsky record.
“Will you come watch the show?” I ask, as if my grandparents would ever miss one of our homemade productions.
“Of course vee vill vatch,” Opa says. “Vill there be music?”
“Yes,” I say. “Nutcracker music.”
“Then vee vill be there most definitely,” he says, holding his plate out for seconds. “Mensch! Dees berries are schmeckt gut!”