Family History

fiction by VALERIE HUNTER

family history

Photo: Public Domain

“Oh-beeeeee?” Tommy drew out his great-great-grandfather’s name with enthusiasm. “Mommy wants you, Obee.”

Obee felt like he was Tommy’s age again, just a little fellow. Obee, come here. Obee, do that. He could hear his older siblings ordering him around, stretching out his name the same way Tommy had.

He’d told himself when he’d invited Anneliese to move in that it was to help her and Tommy. Still, he’d felt his dignity draining ever since, what with her constant prodding and directions on what was best.

He took Tommy’s hand and made his slow way to the den. He’d been Grampa first, then Gramps, and finally Grampa Obee to distinguish him from the younger grampas in the family, but Tommy had stumbled over the Grampa when he was younger and stuck to just Obee. Maybe, Obee mused, he’d never been the respected father, the honored grandfather, the revered great-grandfather. Maybe he’d only ever been Obee the little brother and Obee the old, old man.

Anneliese brought his mind back to level ground. “Do you have your reading glasses, Gramps? I need your help.”

Obee fumbled for his glasses, shaking his head over the photo-littered table. Anneliese always threw herself into her hobbies with unbridled enthusiasm. Whatever it was—knitting, bread baking, watercolors—would consume her until she just as suddenly latched onto something else. She’d already packed a closet with books and assorted supplies from old obsessions, piled in precarious layers.

Anneliese’s current fixation was genealogy, with the intention of filling an enormous scrapbook about their family. Obee was certain that the book would never be finished, nor could he see the fascination of searching for memories beyond your own. Lately suppertime conversations centered around old family stories that Anneliese claimed to have dug up; often times Obee either suspected or flat-out knew she had her facts wrong, but he never corrected her.

“Auntie Celia sent me a stack of old photos, but none of them are labeled.”

“Celia,” Obee murmured. “Matilda’s Celia? She’s still alive?” He brightened; most of the people he knew were dead.

“Unh-hunh. Eighty-four years old.”

“How about that. Matilda’s youngest,” Obee said, lining up the family in his head. “There was Casper—he was a month older’n me, even if he was my nephew—and Erna and Kenneth and Celia at the end. But there was another one before her.” He could picture the girl, blue eyed with a crooked grin, eight or so years younger than himself. “What was her name?” He knew it, he must. He knew her.

“I’ve got it written somewhere,” Anneliese said off-handedly, as though it was just a name and not a person. She thrust a photo at him. “Who’s this, Gramps?”

“It’s a baby,” Obee said. “Could be me for all I can tell. Probably one of Matilda’s, though.”

Anneliese looked disappointed, and he sniffed. As if anyone could tell one baby from another, especially ninety-odd years after the fact!

“What about this one?’

He squinted. “Oh now, that’s Joe and some cousin of his.”

“Joe?”

“Matilda’s husband, my brother-in-law.” He peered at the photo, and Joe stared back at him, friendly-like. Joe always was friendly.

Anneliese frowned. “I don’t know why she sent me that one. Joe would barely be kin to me, and his cousin certainly isn’t.”

Obee said nothing. He was thinking about Joe and Matilda’s other daughter again. Stella? No, Stella was one of his great-granddaughters.

“Can you look through the rest of these and see if there are any good ones? Ones of our family?” Anneliese pushed a pile of photos at him and retreated to the far end of the table with her scissors and glue stick.

Obee curled his fingers around the pictures, frustration throbbing in his forehead. Implying that Joe wasn’t family! Why, he knew Joe better than he knew Anneliese.

He went through the pictures slowly, each one brushing him with a shadow of recollection. There were friends and neighbors of Joe and Matilda, nameless faces that he nevertheless remembered—this one always smelled of roses, that one had a voice like a bullfrog, another had a drinking problem that led to many neighborhood ruckuses.

There were pictures of Matilda’s family, and her second-to-youngest daughter grinned at him, teasing. He could feel her name wriggling through the layers of his memory; given enough time, it would surely surface.

There was a picture of his father with a grandchild on his knee. Pa’s face had retained the innocence of a young boy’s throughout his life; in fact, he was childlike in many ways. Obee could remember playing endless games of checkers with him and Pa’s pure delight at winning. He put the picture aside for Anneliese, along with several pictures of his siblings.

Tommy started whining, and Obee watched Anneliese lead him off for a nap, wondering how he’d never noticed before that Tommy had Pa’s same puckish face. Then he shuffled to the other end of the table to look at Anneliese’s work.

There was a picture of his mother and father as young people, their names written underneath in calligraphy—another one of Anneliese’s former hobbies. A paragraph about Gustav and Dagna Solverson followed, detailing their journey from Norway to Minnesota. Pa was described as “strong” and “domineering,” and Ma was “a devoted mother and wife” and “a pious woman.” 

Obee remembered how his father could lift any load, from a sleeping child to a hundred-pound grain sack, as though it weighed nothing, yet strong was not one of the first descriptors that came to Obee’s mind. As for domineering, no one was more easygoing and downright wishy-washy than Pa had been. Obee had never known his mother—she had died giving birth to him—but by all accounts she was a shrewd, acid-tongued woman, and while Anneliese’s description did nothing to directly contradict this, it nevertheless brought to mind the image of a completely different person than the one Obee had always imagined his mother to be.

He put the page down, wondering if it wasn’t better to be forgotten than to have your name and face associated with someone who wasn’t you. He could only imagine what kind of adjectives Anneliese might come up with to describe him.

He picked up another page, this one with the names and birth dates of his siblings and himself written in the same swirly script, from Matilda at the top to himself, Olaf Broder, at the bottom. The list niggled at him for a moment, and then he realized that his brother Harald was missing, Harald who had drowned at age 7 before Obee was even born. Anneliese had somehow managed to wipe a whole person from history, and Obee placed a trembling finger on the place where Harald’s name should go. 

There was no one who could remember Harald now. Obee found he couldn’t recall a single story about the boy that Matilda or one of his other siblings might have told him, though he could remember quite clearly the stories he had created about Harald when he himself was seven. Maybe he was no better than Anneliese, though at least he’d had youth as an excuse. The thought of a dead brother had been morbidly intriguing then, as though Harald had been frozen in time to be his playmate. He cringed now to think of how much he’d enjoyed playing with a ghost. The Harald of his imagination had always acquiesced to his wishes, had admired him for being strong and brave, had even called him Olaf, his real name that no one ever used.

No, that wasn’t quite true. Obee remembered complaining to Matilda when he was a teenager about how childish his nickname was, and for a few weeks Matilda had called him Olaf in a proper, mocking voice. She soon slipped back to calling him Obee, but she’d made an impression on her two youngest girls, who called him Uncle Olaf forever after. He could hear their two voices, high and sweet, little Celia and—

“Everything all right, Gramps? You like the pages?” Anneliese smiled at him with a look that said his approval didn’t matter so long as she was kind enough to ask.

He smiled back, the smile of a small child who’s just learned something wonderful. “Sofia. Her name was Sofia.”

Valerie Hunter teaches high school English in New Jersey. Her stories and poems have appeared in magazines including Cicada, Storyteller, Room, and Edison Literary Review.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 18, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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