Oma’s Choice, 2023 First Place
By Connie J. Thompson
As I turned off the highway, a melancholy feeling came to rest deep in the pit of my stomach. It had been months since Oma’s death. Still, I was no closer to moving through the sadness I felt. The car rolled to a stop in front of the old farmhouse.
I had visited my Great-grandmother’s place dozens of times, yet it seemed different to me now. So hollow and lifeless. As I opened the door, a cold wind caught me by surprise, taking my breath away. Somehow making me feel even less welcome. Winters were long in Montpelier, Idaho. Some things you never get used to.
Restoring the historic home had given me time to reflect on Oma’s life and my own. As I dragged a bucket into the bedroom closet, I looked down at my watch. “If I hurry, I could be finished painting in thirty minutes.” I thought.
Climbing the ladder, I turned towards the door frame. It was then that I noticed two loose wall boards. Reaching over to adjust them, one gave way, exposing something tucked behind it. Removing my gloves, I carefully lifted a blue velvet box from its hiding place. Gently opening the lid, I peeked in at the contents. There was a photo of a man in a suit, a greeting card, and an old revolver. Who was the man in the picture? It certainly wasn’t great-granddad. A simple inscription, “All my love, Robert,” was written on the back. And why had Oma kept a gun hidden behind the wall? As I stood on the ladder, my imagination began to run wild. What secrets had Oma taken with her to the grave? I needed to find out! I had to find out, or it would haunt me for the rest of my life!
Oma, German for grandmother, was the name I had always known my Great-grand by, but Josefa was her given name. Born near Zurich, Switzerland, in 1869, she was the illegitimate daughter of a housemaid and her wealthy employer. Disgraced from the affair, her mother gave the baby to a convent in a nearby village. By age four, Oma had yet to be adopted. So, she was sold to a local farmer to be used as cheap labor for his wife. Oma never talked much about her childhood, and I didn’t push her on the subject. However, she once offered that kindness was not part of the program.
At fifteen, Oma, who had grown into a talented seamstress, found an envelope containing enough money to book a passage to New York City. Curious, I asked if she had considered finding the money’s rightful owner. Then, choking back tears, she sputtered in her thick German accent, “I was given a wonderful gift. A chance for a better life.” Besides, she mused, “How did I know the envelope didn’t fall straight from heaven?” So, on a blustery day in May 1884, she set sail on a ship pushing west to a new country and a new life.
Conditions on the ship were unbearable. Hundreds of passengers crammed below deck in rows upon rows of bunks. The stench was terrible, and there was no privacy. How frightening it must have been to be a young girl traveling alone. However, my Oma was not like most young girls. She had grit and an immeasurable strength that would serve her well in the future. After sailing for several long weeks, the passengers were loaded onto barges, herded like cattle through endless lines where time seemed to stand still. “Our stomachs were empty, and our spirits dampened by the long journey across the sea. This was my experience.” She told me.
Oma found work in the grimy, dirty city of New York. Every morning she walked through streets that smelled of raw sewage mixed with the body odor of thousands of immigrants. With only the street rats to keep her company, she soon became homesick. Days rolled into weeks, and weeks into months. “Was this to be her life?” She thought. Indeed, working in a sweatshop was not what she had imagined for herself. Little did she know that the answer would take her further West.
Great-granddad, Jonas, was a rancher living in Montpelier, Idaho. Older than Oma, he was short in stature, nice looking with wavy brown hair and cinnamon-colored eyes. He, too, had emigrated from Switzerland looking for a better life. Still, five years later, with only the horses and cows to keep him company, loneliness set in. So, on a whim, he took out an advertisement in a publication called “The Matrimonial Herald.” This would surely be the answer to all his wants and needs. It read, “Bachelor of good moral conduct and ability, 30 yrs. Of age, born in Switzerland, desires to correspond with a true Swiss woman, object matrimony.” It did not take long for Oma to see the ad, and after exchanging a few letters, she found herself headed west to the rugged mountains of Idaho. It was no surprise that the couple was an instant hit. They both spoke German and were raised in villages less than 10 miles apart. This gave them much to talk about.
After arriving in Montpelier, Jonas helped Oma file a homestead claim on 80 acres adjacent to his ranch. It was the nineteenth century, and land in the West was free for the taking. Any man could file a claim along with single, divorced, or deserted women for a small ten-dollar fee. The two were married on a hot July day, just two days after Oma’s sixteenth birthday. She wore yellow daisies in her hair.
“It was a good life at first,” she told me. Montpelier was full of kind people, which made it a nice place to settle down. Side by side, they worked, and the ranch grew and became prosperous. Jonas’ mother, Nann, came to live after Oma gave birth to Uncle Adolph in 1888. Then, my grandma, Hattie, was born in ’91.
Cowboys, in need of a job, came and went on the ranch. Some passing through on their way to far-off dreams. While others seemed to be running from some previous life. But Jonas never asked questions as long as the work was done.
Through whisperings, I learned that great-granddad liked his whiskey and had a red-hot temper that bubbled up, spilling onto everyone around him. Now Oma was anything but a quiet dutiful wife, and the fairy tale life she had imagined came crashing down.
The story went that one night, Jonas pulled a revolver and pointed it at her in a drunken rage. One of the ranch hands wrestled him to the floor, taking the gun away. Embarrassed by his actions, Jonas retired to the barn to “sleep it off.” Fearing for Oma’s safety, the hired man made her pack a bag. Then, scooping Hattie up in his arms, the three set off for a hunting cabin near Paris, Idaho, just ten miles down the road. Adolph, sick with a fever, couldn’t travel. “Leaving my son behind was the hardest thing I ever did,” Oma had said. But I knew Nann would care for my boy, so I left.”
Great-grand never saw Adolph or Jonas again. The two were killed a few months later in a wagon accident near Bear River. Heartbroken, Oma inherited the ranch and later married a blacksmith named Daniel Pots. I had never known Daniel. He passed away when I was young, but the two had six children together. That was the story. Wasn’t it?
Impetuously I threw a log on the fire, found a place near the hearth, and pulled out the card. A sense of foreboding lingered in the air, but desperate to know the truth, I abandoned the feeling and continued. As I opened the frail musty envelope, a shiny lock of black hair tied with a red ribbon fell into my lap.
August 9th, 1896
My dearest Josefa,
I have often thought of you and the sweet months we shared at the cabin in Paris. I never dreamed a woman as beautiful as you could ever love the likes of someone like me. And yet you did somehow love me. How I have loved you, Josefa! Thoughts of you in that pretty yellow dress still make me weak in the knees. I never stopped wishing we could be together. You, me, and Hattie. I reckon she must be about five now. She was always the cutest little dumpling. Can you ever forgive me for not telling you the truth? Alas, I am a wanted man. Life has not turned out the way I’d hoped, but all I can do now is move forward.
I own a ranch in Texas where we can make a fresh go of it. A train leaves the station on the 12th at 8:30 a.m. Tickets for you and Hattie are at the window. I will find you at the next stop, and we can travel to Texas and our new lives together.
I am returning the lock of hair you once gave me. I don’t wish for a small piece of you, my darling, but all of you. I am a better man with you by my side. So, please come and be with me.
Could the man in the letter be Grandma Hattie’s real father? Was that what the argument with great-granddad had been about all those years before? Pulling the card close to my chest, I felt my heart ache for Oma. I knew she had to make the second hardest decision of her life. Go with the man who had saved her? The one she had obviously fallen in love with, or stay with, Daniel, the man she was trying to rebuild her life with? I began to play the scenario over and over in my head.
Suddenly, I was brought back to reality. What did “Alas, I am a wanted man mean?” I knew where I might find some answers. Grabbing my car keys, I headed for the city library. In 1965, they surely would have plenty to read on the history of Montpelier.
Gathering several books, I quickly walked to a discrete corner table and began turning pages. Suddenly, there it was in black and white! I felt my face flush and the room started to spin. I looked again at the image staring back at me. The man in the picture was identical to the photo I had found in the velvet box! The caption read Robert Leroy Parker, aka Butch Cassidy!
My heart was pounding now. “Poor Oma!” I thought. When she hadn’t shown up at the train station, It must have been Butch’s demise. He robbed the Bank of Montpelier the next day along with Elza Lay and Bob Meeks. History told the story that Butch Cassidy went on to live a colorful life in Bolivia, where he and the Sundance Kid were later killed in a gunfight. But, the thought crossed my mind he had gone to his ranch in Texas.
I don’t remember the drive back to Oma’s house or how I found my way to the sofa. Too lost in my thoughts of what to do with the secret I held. Looking around the room, I spotted a worn-out directory. Then, thumbing it open to Grandma Hattie’s name, I carefully dialed the number.
Grandma lived by herself over in Buhl. She was a quiet woman with a sweet disposition. After sharing a few pleasantries, I asked her about Daniel and Oma’s life together. Grandma spoke fondly of growing up in a large loving family. Shaking, I asked if she thought her parents had been happy together. To which she replied, “I do think they were happy. I never heard an unkind word spoken between them.” After some small talk, satisfied, I hung up the phone. It filled me with joy that after such a tumultuous life, Oma had found her fairy tale ending. I sat silently for a long time, only the wind occasionally breaking my thoughts. Then, finally, the last rays of sunlight slid across the sky, turning to shadows of black.
At 95, Great-grand had survived so many trials in her life. Abandonment, death, two world wars, and the great depression. She was an extraordinary woman, and I felt lucky to have known her. I knew Oma had made the right choice. As to the gun or whether Butch Cassidy was Grandma Hattie’s real father, I didn’t need to know. Reaching for the photograph, I took one last look at the man in the picture. Then, without hesitation, I tossed the photo and the card into the fireplace. Carefully, I put the pistol back inside the blue velvet box and sealed it behind the wall boards. I would keep Oma’s secret where it belonged, in the past, at a little cabin in Paris, Idaho.