In a house located on Academy Avenue near the corner of West 5th Street in York, Nebraska, Abel and Francis Penner opened a large envelope that arrived during the first week of the new year. It puzzled them because the frank mark showed it got mailed within the town. Neither recognized the writing on the envelope. They sat at the dining room table staring at it while their children completed homework assignments due when school began after the break.
"It's kind of heavy?" Abel said while weighing it his right hand and scratching at his scalp under his cap. Dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt, he all but embodied the plains' spirit.
"Abe, just open it," his wife requested in a bored manner. She also wore jeans, but opted for a University of Nebraska sweatshirt to hold back the chill.
The man wrestled with the glued flap, and then up-ended envelope. From within a maroon folder bearing the crest of Vanderhurst College slid out. When they opened it, they found a wide assortment of photocopied pictures and pages from old books. As they read through the materials, shifting the pages back and forth to one another, the two discovered it all centered on a single individual. A tall, lean but strong looking young man stared at them from the various pictures. His face looked set. Even from the black and white copies it became clear he possessed blue eyes. Francis studied the photos with care.
"Abe, he looks like you," she told her husband.
"Think so, Franny?" The man replied.
Francis held up one of the clearer of the ancient photos and showed it to the children. Then she asked if the man looked like their father. Seconds later the children agreed in unison.
"Think he's family from way back?" Abel inquired.
"Well, the notes say he left York to go to school over in Massachusetts, where this Vanderhurst is," she summarized as she read. "Also says he was an athlete and rowed a boat for them. Almost made it to the Olympics, except… oh, he, ah, died that winter."
"Looks like he was a pretty good student, too," Abel said while looking over what constituted a transcript from four years after the turn of the twentieth century. "Engineer. Mechanical engineer by the looks of it. You ever recall hearing mention of an Oliver by anyone in the family?"
Francis shook her head, and she continued to stare at the photos and read the associated notes. Then she read a handwritten account of his passing. Following a fight with his best friend, the young man wandered off to be alone with his thoughts, forgot about the weather, and died of exposure. However, none of the printed pages, including the memorial page from the school annual, mentioned those details. Francis scanned memorial page and saw the names of the young man's parents.
"Well, I'll be," she said. "This Oliver Penner would've been your great, great uncle. Says here he was the son of Henrik and Anke Penner, and great Grandma Lina was their daughter. He's yours by way of your mother, Abe."
"Never saw his name in the Bible, and they wrote down the boy who died when he was nine. Why's that?" The man inquired.
"Maybe they lost track of him 'cause he died so far from home. Maybe it was too painful for 'em. Looks like he would've been the oldest. Had ten years on Grandma Lina."
"I can still remember her," Abel said in a faint voice as he stared off into the distance. "Sheesh, she was old when I was baby. Died around when I was six. She outlived almost everyone."
"And this was her brother. Ever hear her talk about him?"
"No, can't say as I did," the man said and glanced at the photos. "She would've just been eight or so when he went off to school. Probably didn't see much of him after that. Then he up and died so young, so… no, not surprised Grandma Lina never mentioned him."
The couple returned to reviewing the various documents. The children showed little interest in the sudden discovery of a long lost, long dead relative. Francis returned to the handwritten notes. She guessed whoever sent the package to be male by the look of the handwriting. Nowhere did they find any indication as to who sent them the information. However, one small note made her pause.
"Abe, listen here," Francis said to her husband. "While Oliver died alone, he did not pass unloved. Though his life was short, he made a tremendous impact on those who took the time to know him. Let him return to the fold of his family. Be proud of Oliver."
"Seems someone liked him, at least enough to let us know about him. Wonder why they did this?" Able asked after listening to his wife.
"Who knows. Might be a school thing they have to do. I'd say it was decent of them to put this all together and give it to us. Strange it got mailed from here. Must've been passing through," the woman mumbled while scanning the empty envelope and folder. "Ever know much about Henrik and Anke?"
"People said Grandma Lina said they were a hard couple to know and kept mostly to themselves. Lost the farm when Henrik died 'cause they wouldn't leave it to a daughter. Still, doesn't answer why they forgot about Oliver. Might be they were mad at him for dying like that."
"Could be, but Oliver's returned to us at any rate. You should let Peter, Fay, and Sander know. They'd be interested."
The man nodded to his wife before saying: "I suspect they would. Sander and Fay both like keeping the lineage up to date. I know this Oliver didn't add any to the line, but he's still one of ours."
"He was good looking man. Too bad he didn't leave children behind."
"We ain't that ugly, Franny."
The woman laughed while her husband smirked. Before them lay part of the life of a man who died over a century before. He looked up from the photos. In some he seemed wary while in others one could see sadness in his eyes. Next to the pictures lay the handwritten note stating that somebody loved him when his life ended. To them, it seemed a good enough reason to welcome Oliver home.
© 2018 D. O'Shae