Maybe This Time
Walter’s not coming. That would be fine with us if only our parents didn’t live in expectation of him. They constantly hope that he might just show up, that when we get together at their place again, the whole family might just be there, all of us, as if we did in fact belong together, as if we were a whole, one more time, or for the first time rather, because it hasn’t happened yet, not once.
When I visit them and suggest, as I did last time, that we all go to my sister’s house to celebrate her birthday, they’re delighted because nothing is more important to them than their children. So we agree to surprise my sister the following day, and then visit my brother, maybe even my other brother, if there’s enough time, since he lives a bit further away.
You know how much I like it when you are all together, Mother says, and tells me everything that has happened while I was gone, and we grow closer, become close even. After a while, however, she stops talking and remains quite still. Father says, Maybe it’s better if you two go and I stay at home. Maybe Walter will stop by tomorrow. And the next day we don’t go to my sister’s, since Mother doesn’t like to leave Father by himself and she doesn’t want to miss Uncle Walter, should he finally come, as she says. So they stay at home, in the house, and I stay with them. My sister comes to visit, to celebrate her birthday here, in our parents’ house, not at hers as she has wanted to do for decades.
One of them always used to stay at home. For as long as I can remember, they’ve never left the house together, and for some time now they haven’t even left separately, fearing that Walter might come and they wouldn’t be there.
If we want to see them, we have to go to their house, and we do. There are plenty of occasions: Father’s birthday, Mother’s, their anniversary, my brother’s birthday, my other brother’s birthday (the one who supposedly looks just like Uncle Walter), saints’ days, weddings and christenings, All Souls’ Day and All Hallows’ Eve, Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. Yes, there are occasions enough and we observe them. From all directions, we make our way to our parents’ house.
Besides Walter, Father has another brother and a sister who come to every occasion, along with their sons and daughters, the cousins with their children, the nephews, my great-uncle, all of them. Well, not all of them, in fact, because Uncle Walter is always missing. The more he stays away, the more my parents long for him and the more stubborn their hope that this time, today, now, he could perhaps still come after all.
But Walter doesn’t come, at least not while we are there. We don’t make up for his absence, those of us who are present, and no matter how hard we try to distract them, to make them forget about Walter, it never works. The rest of us do count for something, but not enough compared with him, since Walter’s absence makes us all invisible in our parents’ eyes and in our own. Those who are missing are noticed, but only until they come through the door, join those who are waiting and disappear into the group. It’s always the same game, who’s there and who isn’t, how many are we now, and who might then still come and who not.
The names of the others are mentioned. Yet it’s only his name everybody thinks about. However, no one asks after him, on that we silently agreed a long time ago. Not a word is said about him. But eventually our parents start talking about him and then we speak of nothing but Walter.
In the house and in the garden, we sit together and wait, pretending that we aren’t waiting. We look at each other and try to talk to each other, pretending that this is enough. But it isn’t. And how could it be, waiting as we are for another, morning, noon, evening and into the night. Whether we don’t mention his name once or whether we speak of nothing but him, we wait, at each and every family gathering and also the days and weeks in between, through the years and decades that our family has been around. And should we, just once, manage to be together without a single thought of him, a mere look from one of us is enough to bring us all back to him, and to our parents, for whom, once again, our presence is not enough.
With our constant glances at the door, never intended for the one coming through it, but searching for the one who is not to be found, we simply tell one another, but no, you’re not Walter. It took me years before I could interpret these looks and understood that they had nothing to do with me, but with the one who was missing, always the one who was missing.
That’s how it was, and it’s no different now, and none of us could say why it was the way it was, the way it had to be, the way it is now. In this sense, we have always lived with Walter. We know him and don’t know him. The youngest of us, in fact, have never laid eyes on him. And when photos from our parents’ or another relative’s childhood are passed around at the gatherings, there is never any trace of Walter.
We know him from hearsay and from our parents’ stories and expectations and their invariably disappointed hopes, which have now become ours. Should a stranger come to the door or pass by a window, which happens often enough at our family gatherings, my nieces and nephews are taken aback and look at each other, checking to see if the stranger could be Uncle Walter, nodding inquiringly or shaking their heads. No, it’s not Uncle Walter, for whatever reason. Uncle Walter looks different, Uncle Walter is taller or shorter, depending, since each of us has our own image of Walter. But in all the stories he’s good-natured, well-meaning and attentive, and interested in all of us. That’s what they tell us. But we don’t believe it, just as when I was a child, for years I didn’t believe he even existed. But there is a Walter.