Johnson County Library is pleased to announce that Nadine Shookman has won our open writing contest on the theme of Bodies with her piece "Oma."
Born in Germany, Nadine Shookman lives in Overland Park with her husband Jesse and a goldendoodle named Oatmeal. She works as a catastrophe modeler and spends her free time writing, drawing, and volunteering in the community.
I remember brushing my fingertips along the inside of my great-grandmother’s wrist, struck by how different her skin felt from mine. I was around eight years old, she in her eighties. I called her “Oma,” the German word for grandma, the name I heard my mom use to greet her. She was the only one of my great-grandparents still alive and the oldest person I knew. While I could see she was old by the wiry gray curls that lay on her head and her stooped posture, I didn’t feel what old meant until that day.
The skin in the crook of her arm felt strangely soft, like a buttery velvet, like the flower petals outside of my grandma’s house in Germany that my mom warned me not to touch. Sometimes, when no one was looking, I would pluck a petal from the pink rose bushes in the garden and rub the petal between my fingertips, amazed by the silkiness. Eventually, the petal would start to curl at its edges from the roughness of my thumb, the surface wrinkling and bruising. I would drop the petal on the ground, feeling guilty that I ruined something so delicate.
Her arm was translucent. Thick, swollen blue veins extended down her wrist like the tributaries of a river. I was afraid that if I dragged my hand across her delicate skin too hard, it would tear and give way like the cascading flow of a landslide. I looked down at my own wrist. Faint blue-green lines lay flatly under my skin. I ran my hand along the inside of my arm and felt a smooth roughness like the construction paper I used at school.
There was something about feeling her fragility, not just seeing it, that made her aging more palpable to me than anything else. She was getting closer to death. I knew because I overheard my mom and grandma whisper about it in the kitchen. I was afraid of death. People that died went into the ground and never came back again. I had a sudden realization that my Oma and I were two opposite ends of a spectrum, defined by our skin. I realized that when she died, my grandma would be next. Then my mom would take the place of my grandma, and I would take the place of my mom. We would keep shifting generations until one day I became my Oma. My body started to feel hot and tingly from fear. I didn’t want things to change. I wanted to stay a kid. I felt like I was stuck on a cruel conveyor belt that wouldn’t stop.
I ran down from my Oma’s upstairs room to find my grandma. I covertly ran my fingertips along the inside of her arm. My grandma’s skin had started to soften like my Oma’s, but still had a rough smoothness in places. The peculiar harbinger of old age hadn’t taken over her yet. Next, I ran to my mom. Relief washed over me as I felt her skin. Strong and taught, it felt just like mine. We had time.
My Oma died when I was ten years old. She was 83. When she died, I cemented that age into my mind as the time when the generational shift occurs, when the gears of the conveyor belt crank to move you to your next position.
Except it hasn’t quite worked out that way. My grandma has now outlived my Oma. At an age where my Oma couldn’t make it down the stairs, my grandma took a trip to Egypt. I am now older than my mother’s age at the time I felt her skin thirty years ago. Now in my late 30s, I’ve seen the signs of aging within myself. Gray hairs have sprouted along the part in my hair and the skin under my eyes dimples and creases when I smile. But every so often, I catch myself brushing my fingertips across the inside of my arm and find that I still have time.