Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Ode to Oma

I am not sure how many of you have had a wonderful grandparent, but I have been spectacularly lucky. I know most people feel that way. But Emma, or Oma to me, was truly special.

She is gone now, but she was like a second mother; my arbiter of social graces, the one who flagged my raging passions. She was an old world woman. She live through the expulsion of her family from Russian after the revolution, through the closing of the Berlin Wall, to building a new life in Canada. Through this time she lost a fortune, twin children to starvation, and the deaths of sisters she could not see on their death beds due to the cold war. Yet, she was never harsh, or bitter, or angry. She persevered. With warmth and dignity.

My mother has told me how difficult it was for her to marry into Oma's family. Tight, German, old world. Yet, she adapted and grew to love this strange, strong, wrinkled woman who ruled over her family like an iron fist.

I have to give my mother snaps. She was a first. A career woman with her own life, pursuing her own goals; a feisty libertine! Yet, the two of them reached an understanding with me. They agreed to share me and my sisters in their weird collective mash-up of old and new. Because of that I had an extraordinary childhood.

I was lucky, I came along after the hardships had started to fade in Oma's life. When Oma and Opa could enjoy the fruits of their extensive labour. I was the grandchild that was born into this new life. The life where there was consistency. Where there was hope. This was a commodity that Oma had often found to be short in her life. Because of this I got to experience her undivided attention.

And what attention it was!! I was so proud when I got to to the stores with her and Mrs. Marx to have french fries and gravy. Of course, I was not allowed to talk. Talking was for the adults. I sat in my pretty dress and felt happy that, I, ME, had been included in the gossip of the neighbourhood! Damn it, I belonged! And, no one, could take that bus ride and lunch away from me. From these afternoons I learned how to respect my elders and how to interact in public. A skill, I must say, that has benefited me a great deal since then.

She was also the one I went to when I felt stifled by my father. My father was a man who still had one foot in the old world and one the new, but who was still struggling to reconcile the two. The fact that he had 3 daughters was a conundrum for him. What do you do with girls! Boys you could instruct. He knew what to do with boys, but girls! Girls and he had to figure it out as he went along. So Oma got to be the middle man.

When Mom would work we stayed with Oma. There was no question, no daycare, no nannies. It was unspoken. Oma would look after us. We got to hang out with her and have toast and jam and watch the Edge of Night. I love these memories. I am so lucky to have had this time.

My father once said to me, "you don't know her the way she was when I grew up!" And he is right. By the time I came along the worst had past. She was willing and able to give all her love and attention. Sometimes I wondered if she was giving my sisters and me what she felt she was robbed of with the twins who died, but I don't know. She never talked about them. Too painful, I think. But I would be a liar if I said I didn't relish the sleepovers, and the food at the table like a proper lady or the scolding when Mark told her I didn't cook for him.

She was my touchstone. In some ways I think Anita, my sister was laid low worse then I was by her passing, because in many respects Anita is more of Oma's child then I was. She knew the recipes I was too busy to learn. She also lived with her over the last years of her life when I was gone to University and too busy with learning and life to pay as close attention as I should have. Or which she deserved.

Oma lived in her house until she was 93 when she had a stroke. Up until that time she was always the avatar. Christmas was at her house. Meals where always prepared by her in her kitchen. When she had the stroke she had to go into long term care. But true to form, the family didn't forsake her. Everyone had their meal to feed her, even Mark. We congregated at this sad facility three times a day and made sure she was feed and feted. Everyone had their meal once a week and no one gripped. She had given too much to each of us to shirk. You went and you stayed as long as possible. It was heartbreaking. The once fierce woman was often reduced to bed rest and there were many times when she didn't know who you where. But you were there. Unlike other patients who roamed the halls lost and alone, without a family member to care or look after them, Oma had family to look after her. If she had no other legacy this would be enough.


Squirrelly Girly said...

Heidi, that was beautiful

Anonymous said...

We can all only hope to aspire to be a woman like Opa.