He was the survivor of a Nazi concentration camp. His parents and sisters perished there.
I met Robert Walker when I was about eleven years old.
I’m not sure if Robert felt sorry for me, genuinely liked me, or thought I needed a break, but he had me home for a weekend. It was a rare opportunity to spend time in the city. Living on a farm, a religious commune, my brother and I worked hard as we had next to no mechanization.
“After the camp, when the war was over, I came to Canada. I was only ten years old. The family I lived with had a farm. I was paid by the blister.” He held out his hands, palms facing me. “Ten cents a blister. I made sure I had ten blisters. I needed that money.”
Robert showed me his coin collection and his stamp collection. He demonstrated how to remove a stamp from an envelope by soaking it in water, and he explained that fingerprints on a coin are bad because the oils, over time, can corrode the metal. He took me to museums and told me of the importance of wearing a seat belt and that if you’re going to do a lot of walking, the best thing for your feet were shoes with thick rubber soles.
It was so alien to me to have someone talk to me rather than at me. I’m sure I wasn’t an easy kid to like. I smelled bad, my hair spiked in crude chops, and I could be rude and crass, as a result of having lived apart from the world.
The kindness Robert showed me stayed with me, and now as an adult I wish I hadn’t lost touch with him. I wish I’d thanked him. He opened a window to a life that was possible, one I hadn’t conceived of on my own but that had sparked my imagination. A life of being clean, eating sandwiches on a deck in the sunshine, and laughing with people who are content.
The lamp on the bedside table was still on in Robert’s guest room. I had slept with the light on throughout my childhood for the nightmares. My brother and I were told the Devil was always watching for a moment of weakness so that he may possess our bodies and claim our souls. I often dreamed of a creature blacker than night who would appear out of the dark and sit on my chest and choke me.
But that night I thought about Robert and the Nazis and all that he had lost and endured. I turned off the light. I realized that there are demons in this world more real and frightening than anything my father could conjure. And Robert showed me that even a little boy could endure a long, dark night and still be whole when morning came.
John Callaghan at Get Off My Lawn