OP-ED: Do You Know How Ollie Is?

By Shelly Reuben
Shelly Reuben
Shelly Reuben

Next in the series from Come Home. Love, Dad, published by Bernard Street Books, a memoir about my father, Samuel Reuben – a truly extraordinary man.  

When I called Ollie during my rare trips home, he remembered me.  Every time.  But I never gave him the chance not to.  I always told him that I was Mikey’s sister or Mr. Reuben’s daughter.  And he would be so nice to me on the phone.  Tired, calm, old, unhurried, confident, masculine-nice, the way he had been when he leaned against his rake and listen off towards the house for Mom to call us in for lunch.

Before we cut them down to build the new garage, we had two pear trees on Jackson Avenue.  They were beautiful trees.  There was a hammock strung between them, and from upstairs in the boys’ room (when it was painted yellow), I could turn out all the lights and look down at Selma and Ronnie Morris almost-kissing as they swung back and forth on the hammock in the backyard.  Those pear trees blossomed into the daintiest, prettiest white flowers in the springtime, and in the summer, we would get a bombardment of fruit.  Usually, the pears were wormy or nibbled on by squirrels, so we didn’t pay much attention to them.  But Ollie would gather them up by the bushel, and he would bring them home to the wife who was a policewoman, and she would do something magical to them, and they would come back to our kitchen as preserves or jam.  

Ollie always thanked Mom and Dad as though they had done something wonderful for him by giving him the pears.  Mom and Dad would always thank him for the preserves, and when I would take a cinnamon-tasting pear out of the glass jar with the rubber gasket, I would pretend that the policewoman was Aunt Em canning fruit for Dorothy before she went to Oz.

At lunch, Ollie would sit on one side of the kitchen table in the breakfast nook, and I and whoever else would sit opposite or beside him.  The breakfast nook was important because when the Lady Esther estate was torn down, Mom and Dad went to the auction and bought some French doors.  They installed them on the north side of the nook, and we would open them out on the roof over the garage and feel elegant.  

So Ollie would be eating and I would be feeling elegant opposite him, and Mikey would be waiting for Ollie outside with his soap-box derby cart and his Davy Crocket T-shirt and his happy eyes, and I’d try to get Ollie to tell me about the Civil War, and which side he fought on, and what it was like.  

I don’t know if Ollie was putting me on about any of the wars, but to this day, I’m sure he told me that he had done something in the Spanish–American war, and my almanac says that it was in 1898, so it may have been the Spanish Civil War, and if so, he may have known Hemingway...or was it Teddy Roosevelt?  And I would keep asking questions; he was like this vast, perspiring, dignified secret that I wanted to look inside of.  But I never did, because even though he answered my questions, nothing he said ever seemed to matter to him, although it was said kindly, and he would finish his scrambled eggs or tuna fish sandwich, thank my mother, and go back to raking leaves with Mikey tagging alongside.

I don’t think Mikey talked to Ollie much either.  At least, not the kind of talk where you approach a man as if you’re a can opener and he’s a can of Campbell’s condensed tomato soup.  They talked about raccoon tails and bicycle races, I suppose.  And they’d wipe the sweat off their foreheads and bend down together to lift the piles of leaves into a bushel basket.  But I don’t suppose Mikey ever asked Ollie what life was all about.

And I’m sure my father never asked Ollie that question.

I was on the outside, my can opener spinning ineffectively, fully aware that the way I was trying to find things out wasn’t how to do it.  But I wasn’t bitter or jealous or resentful of being a girl, because I was still part of it all.  Maybe just by sitting in the breakfast nook, looking out at the way my father, Mikey and Ollie could work in the backyard and not-talk to each other with such effortless companionability.  Maybe seeing and remembering was my part.

When I think back, I can recall very few specifics about Mikey and Ollie.  I’m not sure why I knew that Mikey was Ollie’s favorite.  The facts are probably curled up in some cubbyhole of my subconscious, but what and where they are, I don’t know.


Every year, though, when I came home from New York, I would ask my father how Ollie was.  And every year, he’d say, “Why don’t you call him yourself and find out?”

Some years Ollie was sick.

Some years he didn’t sound as if he remembered me right off.  Some years the policewoman answered, or maybe it was a different wife by then.  And some years my father may just have spoken to Ollie and knew that he was all right, so I wouldn’t have to make the call myself.

But always…always, not long after I walked into the orange kitchen in the less auspicious house on Greenbay Road, I would remember being young and looking up at a man as if he contained unimaginably wise secrets, and I would begin to wonder about Ollie.

Even after Mikey died.

I’m not sure how soon after that I thought of Ollie.  It may have been as long as a year later, or maybe even two, but eventually I did.  I remember that I was standing in the kitchen and I turned to my father, and I said, ”Do you know how Ollie is?”

But it wasn’t until Daddy suggested I call him that it crashed in on me like those miserable, majestic, raging waves that tear away at Lake Michigan’s shore; if I called Ollie to find out how he was, I would have to tell him that Mikey was dead.

And I couldn’t do that.  

Not now.  Not ever.  Not in a million years.

So I don’t know how Ollie is.

And I don’t want to know.

There are some things in life that one simply cannot do.

* * *

Copyright © 2011, Shelly Reuben.  Reprinted from Come Home. Love, Dad, originally published by Bernard Street Books. ISBN: 0-9662868-1-2Available from barnesandnoble.com; Amazon.com, or your local bookstore.  Shelly Reuben has been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards.  For more about her books, visit  HYPERLINK "http://www.shellyreuben.com" \o "http://www.shellyreuben.com/" www.shellyreuben.comLink to David M. Kinchen's reviews of her novels "The Skirt Man" and "Tabula Rasa":  HYPERLINK "http://www.huntingtonnews.net/columns/060605-kinchen-review.html" \o "http://www.huntingtonnews.net/columns/060605-kinchen-review.html" http://www.huntingtonnews.net/columns/060605-kinchen-review.html

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