I apologize for not writing a blog last week. My grandmother recently passed away not long before she would have turned 97. Don’t worry, we aren’t sad. And before you get offended, you have to know my grandmother, or as we called her, Oma. So, today we are deviating. Today I’m telling you about Oma.
My Oma was born in Germany in 1923, before the war, to a fully German mother, who couldn’t stand her, and an Italian father, who adored her. She wouldn’t want me to give her name, so I won’t. When Oma was fourteen, her father died and tension at home was so great that she left her mother, her close brother, and her sisters, to live on her own.
That was the time of the Hitler Youth, and everyone knows what happened to those who refused, so Oma joined the airforce. She was on the beach when they stormed Normandy and I know it was a kill or be killed situation. She had a firearm, but would never say if she’d killed anyone. She did say that she had to make her peace with God later in her life, and she did.
She was in Berlin during the Blitz. She remembered standing in the middle of the street, all her body hair singed off, skin blistered and ears ringing. Amid the rubble, she saw children without faces and she sank down on her knees crying and prayed for help. She felt a hand on her shoulder, but when she turned around, no one was there. She would tell you that she knew without a doubt that an angel had been there with her and gave her a peace that helped her go on.
She once stood in a line, it must have been important, because Hitler shook her hand, and said something trite, like, “Nice to meet you. Good work.” Or something. She couldn’t remember his exact words. It wasn’t important to her. She told some stories, and some hurt too much. She felt she had been divinely protected, and told me about an explosion inside a bunker that killed everyone, but only wounded her.
On one trip across country by train, the German government was shipping their soldiers somewhere, and they were in the middle of a huge field that stretched out as far as they could see, when American bombers came flying overhead. As they flew in from the North, they began to fire. Oma’s best friend pulled her by the sleeve, and they jumped off the train on the south side. As the planes flew overhead, shooting the whole way, Oma and her friend crossed underneath, heading North as the planes flew South. Oma and her friend came out to realize they were the only two survivors on the whole train. That’s usually when that story stopped. The look on her face as she remembered horrors I’ve never dreamt of, was so full of sadness.
She was captured at the end of the war and held in a prisoner of war camp that she wouldn’t talk about. But she survived. And she was hard because of it.
Oma had my mother on her own, in a time when that wasn’t done. But she was strong and no one was going to tell her what to do. Even though she sometimes had to strain oatmeal-water in bottles to feed my mother and go without herself. Even then, when her fiance left to go to America and marry someone else, she had to find a new strength. He tried to kidnap my mother when she was two. My mom remembers the traumatic event, being with her grandma and then having her other grandmother and mother come to take her away.
There are years unaccounted for in her life. Oma dropped my mom off with her mother and disappeared. My mom remembers digging for potatoes with her oma (Oma, means “grandmother” in German) and getting on the train by herself at five years old to go see her aunt. They stopped her, of course, and got her home, but she remembers a very different life than we have.
When my mom was about seven or eight, Oma reappeared and said, “Hi, this is my new husband. You’re coming to live with us now.” And my mom was a service brat, because Oma had married a G.I. Opa, my grandpa, was an engineer in the U.S. army. He was an extremely cool dude and everyone loved him. But back in those days, he was an alcoholic and a smoker and Oma had temper problems. There was a lot of dish throwing and screaming. Oma wasn’t nice to my mom, but in her way, she loved her very much. My mom was an only child, and her dad never once made her feel like anything other than his one and only child.
When they first came to America, Mom and Oma hated it. But when they went back, they found they missed things. Little things, like individual phones and bathrooms you didn’t have to share, and cheeseburgers, and shakes…They were happy to come back and became American citizens. They were so proud to be American citizens that they celebrated on their citizenship day every year. Mom and Oma and Opa would go out to dinner, or send cards and wish each other well. It was their personal holiday.
They got older, Opa retired from the army just six months before the Vietnam war broke out and he was exempt from service. They moved to Ohio. As I grew up I knew them as Grandma and Grandpa Hio (short for Ohio). Yeah, it’s stupid, but my brother and I weren’t the most original sometimes. I lived in Kansas City with my parents and near my dad’s parents. They were my favorite people on the planet. More than my Oma and Opa, and more than my parents. They were my everything. That Grandma died the month before I turned fifteen, and then Grandpa went crazy without her, he was senile and said hurtful things to people. It was hard. But he died of a broken heart the month I turned sixteen. Those were my obligatory days of writing black poetry, publishing “shock art” in high school magazines.
Up until that time, I would see Oma and Opa once a year for about a week, or maybe two, at a time. Which was WAY too much time, for Oma or for us kids. Oma never could understand how my mother could possibly care for us as much as she cared for my mother. She didn’t get it. But she also didn’t think I treated my mother as well as I should. So, she’d slap me. Every stinking visit. I remember one visit making it a whole week and I sat outside thinking, I made it. And then, before she got in the car, Oma thought I said goodbye in a snotty way, and had to slap my face.
When my grandparents died, Oma and Opa moved to live near us and I felt like she was trying to take my other grandma’s place. I didn’t like her. But that upset my mom. Mom would say, “You should love her. She’s your grandmother, and she loves you very much.” I didn’t see it. What I did see was her berating my mother about a fine layer of dust on the furniture, or all the times Oma would call my mom from Ohio and chew her out. If Mom didn’t call early enough on Oma’s birthday, she’d call my mom and make her cry. And my mom would say, “I called this morning, Mom, but you weren’t there. Check your answering machine.” And Oma would say, “Oh. Well. I guess we did go out for breakfast. Okay then. Bye.” And my mom would sob. That really didn’t make me like the woman.
My mom and Oma took a few trips back to Germany together to visit their family. On one of those trips when I was a teenager, they had a real come-to-Jesus talk and made up. Then my mom really wanted me to like her. But I couldn’t forget things like the time when I was ten years old.
We were spending a few weeks in the summer with them in Ohio and I was a very small and sheltered kid. We were in the middle of eating dinner when Oma said, “That’s it,” in a grumble and jumped up from the table. She grabbed my wrist and pulled me behind her. I didn’t know what she was doing. Maybe getting me a sweater? I had on a tank top. She hauled me up two flights to the bathroom and pulled me in behind her. I waited while she fished something out of the drawer. She grabbed my wrist again and lifted my arm, forcing this thing up and down my armpit. It hurt. Then she held up the thing, pushing it out toward me and said, “This is deodorant. Use it!” and stomped back downstairs. I was mortified. If someone had whispered something to me, I would have taken care of it. No one had ever told me about deodorant before. I didn’t know I smelled.
Oma had the ability to make me feel stupid for being alive. Oma took my first bra from my crumpled fist and marched me through the store holding it up in front of me on the hanger. And I was supposed to suddenly not only like her, but love her. How could I do that?
I decided not to hold it against Oma that she wasn’t my other grandma anymore. You don’t get to choose your biological family. They had always told me different stories about Oma’s turn in the service when I was growing up. They didn’t want me going to school saying my grandma was a Nazi. She wasn’t. There was a difference between being in the service and being party of the Nazi party. It wasn’t a difference that I understood, but I don’t have to.
I started to hear the stories of the life that made Oma the person she was. A person who could beat my mother with the vacuum cleaner cord. I had always hated it when people said, “You don’t get along with Oma, because you two are just alike.” To me that was an insult. I wasn’t like that. But as I grew up, I realized that they meant the good things. The strength, the determined attitude, strong faith, the need for a plan, the ability to be a leader.
I realized we had more in common than I thought. I made some decisions in my young life that weren’t the best and I had to admit that in her situation, I don’t know if I would have been different. I am not mean, and I don’t scream or beat people, so I like to think I would be different, but it was another time, another world. I can’t judge.
You reap what you sow. As I had five children, and my family got older, Opa died. That was very hard on all of us. And as I learned more about the permanence of life, or the impermanence rather, I didn’t want to hold those things against her anymore. I realized that hating her was my baggage, not hers. She was carrying her own, from a life fully lived. Could I even say that about myself?
I made my peace with her. I loved her. When Opa died, she was done. Oma didn’t want to be alone. She lived in her own home and my mom took care of her because they lived down the street from one another. Oma started getting cranky, but it was cute. She shrunk down to about four foot nine with a bobbed haircut of brilliant white and her accent. She walked with a cane sometimes. Her legs would swell up with fluid and hurt. She would get so mad because she was still alive.
My mom said one day, “Mom, if you think you’re done, just tell God, ‘I’m done. Bring me home. Into your hands I commend my spirit.'”
Oma looked at her, fuming, and said dead-pan, with hands on her hips, “I already did.”
May we all be old enough to get tired of life. At forty-six I still can’t imagine ever thinking I’m done watching my kids grow or meeting their children, and theirs. Oma was done, though. She’d lived her life, made her mistakes, paid for some, repented for all. She never gave up her belief that she had been carried through horrific experiences that she wouldn’t even tell us about. She’d seen it, been there, done that. I will miss her little firecracker spirit.
After she was gone, I found out that she didn’t want any of us to gain her things after she died. She wanted my mom to sell it all and keep the money for herself. But she didn’t know my mom. She never really did. My mom is a kind, sweet little mouse. And she would give you the shirt off her back. No, she’d probably just buy you a new one in your favorite color and have Amazon deliver it to your door. She didn’t emulate her own mother, she emulated my dad’s mom, who was truly an angel.
Thank God we aren’t graded on a curve. She wasn’t the best at some things, but she influenced a lot of people as a dynamic little white-haired breath of fresh air. A true worshipper and prayer warrior. An enigma. Not good, or bad, just Oma.
See you next week, friends! Keep writing, and we’ll be back to the work in progress next week.