Sonya Huber's Opa Nobody
Nebraska University Press/2008
By Joey Franklin
My four-year-old, playing on the floor, looked up from his Lincoln Logs and said, "You read a sad book, Dad? Why was it sad?" How could I explain to my son, whose entire universe consists of t-ball and fire trucks that this comfortable life we share in small-town Ohio has been an exception to the rule that governs much of human experience, that for so many this world has been a painful, hateful place, choked in coal dust and smog, shrouded in violence and oppression, and bound in disease and death?
"It was sad," I finally said, "because babies die, families fight, politics is dirty, and Hitler was a monster." My answer went over his head, he went back to his Lincoln Logs, and I mulled over my own sadness.
Opa Nobody wasn’t really sad after all, not entirely. True, as I sat on the couch waiting for the clamor of the Buschman Family to melt from my mind, I felt a bizarre cocktail of emotions: regret for that family torn by poverty, politics, and fascist war; horror at the Holocaust and the way evil governments can turn people into animals; and fear for my future as a father in a country wrought with its own sense of superiority. But under all that, there was hope.
Huber had rediscovered her grandfather, a specter she’d only known in family stories and second-hand accounts. She’d cemented facts when she could cement them, and kept her pride and her imagination on a tight leash as she speculated between the gaps. She’d thrown open her family’s closet to examine the skeletons under hot lights and found beneath the dust, and shadows, and decades, a sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter picture of the life that her Grandpa Buschman might have lived.
Perhaps it’s the shadow of my own maternal grandfather at the root of this sadness. I never met my mother’s father, but when I think of him, I conjure scenes that I’ve imagined in the stories I was told. He worked in iron, steel, and brass. He raised chickens and grew potatoes and corn to feed his family. He led a small Mormon congregation in Pocatello, Idaho. My mother’s words, “Your Grandpa Hess would be so proud,” became a barometer for childhood success, and I found myself living for the approval of a man I’d never met. And I never thought it would be possible to meet him, until I read Opa Nobody. Could I do what Huber had done, take my own family stories and resurrect the man behind them? There, then, was the sadness that I couldn’t explain to my son. I’m longing to recreate my grandfather, to find myself in his stories, to know him as well as I’ve come to know Sonya Huber’s Opa Buschman.
Joey Franklin is a graduate student in creative nonfiction at Ohio University. He lives in Athens with his wife and 2 sons.