“Oma” is German and means “Grandma” or “Granny”. It’s pronounced /’o:ma/.
Even though I am composing this text in English I will keep on calling Oma “Oma” because that’s what I have called her all my life and a translation wouldn’t capture the true meaning of this word for me.
There are two reasons why I am writing this for my Oma: The first is that last October was the 10th anniversary of Oma’s day of death. The second is that Oma was one of my first heroines and it is not exaggerated to say that that’s what she will always be to me. She looked like a cute little old woman, charming and caring but she also must have been very, very strong and brave indeed. Some might call her a feminist – not because of the things she said but rather the things she did. As a child, the most obvious hint for me that she was different was that she was wearing trousers and not dresses and an apron. How modern! The other thing was not so easy to see because it was so normal for me that it took some time to realize: Oma was living alone and not with Grandfather. When I finally realized this and asked Mama, I would get the answer that she had left Grandfather and I wouldn’t ask further.
Later, bit by bit I learned the whole story but I never mentioned it to Oma herself and neither did she. Except once that is. Aged 80 she was sitting with my Mama at the table and I was passing by when she said (to Mama not to me but she knew that I was within earshot) “Do you think it was right? That I left Papa, I mean.” To be frank we were shocked! Mama answered and I didn’t dare to interrupt them but in the retrospective and with what I know today I should have jumped to her, grabbed her, hugged her and should have said just two words: “Yes, Oma!”
Of course, as usual, I used to have two Omas but I’m writing this for my “Wertheim-Oma” – my Oma who had been living in Wertheim, hence the pet name. However, Wertheim was not her hometown. In fact, my little Wertheim-Oma had made quite a journey until she was finally able to settle in what was to become her place of death!
Oma was born in a town in Silesia and was an only child. I understand that her grandparents whom she visited quite often were more or less well-off – not really rich I think but they were able to live in a neat little city house with one of those beautiful iron-cast balconies at the front. Whenever we saw such balconies she would smile happily and tell us grandchildren: “My grandparents used to live in a house with such a balcony a long, long time ago!”
When I think of Oma I usually picture her on a balcony as well – even though not such a beautiful one. I see her waving us good-bye from her balcony in Wertheim – not a very nice one actually with corrugated iron sheet in a wine red color but still nice in the way that for all my life this was Oma’s balcony. She would always step out and watch us walking to our parking space. Even though it is now 10 years since Oma died I can still see her when I pass the house where she used to live.
Poor Oma was not born into happy times. She was 10 years old when Hitler came to power and 22 at the end of WWII. She married her husband when she was 19 years old. I wonder whether she really was in love with him or not or whether back then he treated her nicely. We have postcards which at least give you the impression that as a young couple they were quite affectionate. But this fact actually makes their whole story only even sadder.
We don’t have a wedding photo of them – they went to a photographer but Grandfather was a soldier and Oma was also forced to work away from home. They had taken home leave for getting married and the family members they left behind had to flee before they were able to collect the pictures.
After the war, Oma and Grandfather were lucky enough to be in West Germany (unlike Oma’s parents) but it took some time until they found a place to stay. In 1948 Oma’s first child was born, my uncle. Later they found a place to settle in Baden-Wuerttemberg where in 1949 my Mama was born in a refugee home. Eventually by the help of the war refugee integration scheme they were able to move into a house there. However, life still was not easy: Grandpa wasn’t allowed to work in the profession that he had learned (he was a butcher) and had to work hard to earn at least a little money – maybe one aspect which made him turn into an alcoholic in the end. Oma mostly cared for their four children – after my uncle and Mama two other girls followed. Already when the children were small Grandfather had turned into a traditional patriarch – beating the children up for no good reason at all, only giving Oma little money to care for the household and prepare the meals and then reprimanding her for not buying enough meat. I know that my Grandfather had had a tough life – losing his father at the age of 4 in WWI, his mother marrying his cruel uncle, himself not being able to work in the profession he had chosen and earning more money. However, you always have a choice and because of the way he treated his family he more than deserved it that his wife left him in the end.
Even though Oma and her family might had found a place to stay, they weren’t treated as normal residents: the stain of being a refugee was not to be removed for some time. But even though they never had much money, Oma insisted that her children went to the Gymnasium – the highest secondary school form in Germany preparing the pupils for an academic career. This was far from being usual at that time! Oma was an ardent lover of proverbs and one of her favorite ones was “Nobody can steal what you have in your head!”.
Grandfather’s behavior got worse over the years. When Mama, my uncle and my aunt had already moved out of the house, my other aunt, the baby of the family, and Oma sometimes had to lock themselves in to prevent Grandfather focusing his anger at them when he was drunk. He even used psychological terror and put a knife in his little bedside cabinet threatening Oma to kill her.
Oma endured all this for years and years. Maybe for her children’s sake. The situation had to deteriorate even further until she finally took action. My other aunt had moved out and married and with all the children out of the house Grandfather’s behavior worsened. When Oma had to get her thyroid operated and came out of the hospital with a fresh operation wound and Grandfather forced her to remove the water from the basement after a small inundation, watching his weakened wife while she was doing the hard work and sneering at her, the urging of her children finally persuaded her to leave him. Remember, this was at a time when divorces were absolutely inacceptable and leaving your spouse was also out of the question for most people!
As Mama was already living in Wertheim, she and her brother and sisters decided to rent a flat for Oma there. My aunt collected Oma from the house where (against the plan) Grandfather was also there and certainly not pleased to learn that he was now being left alone by his wife! I only know little of how he reacted. Of course he was angry, also with his children. However, he stopped reprimanding them when they threatened to stop visiting him. Naturally, the relationship of the children towards their father was never a warm and loving one. Later, when he was staying in an old-people’s home one of the geriatric nurses once reproached Mama for coming to visit her father that seldom – but actually it was quite nice of them not to break the contact completely!
Oma was not even 60 when she came to Wertheim, the place where she finally found something which came at least close to a home. But Mama told me that she looked like 80 back then due to the operation and maltreatment of Grandfather.
Social relationships, e.g. the Wertheimer Silesian Club or the senior gymnastics and of course a whole bunch of grandchildren helped her recover soon!
She never had a relationship to another man again. I think she was through with that! In some ways this was a pity because she really was a charming woman. I remember her accompanying me to the orthodontist. After the treatment she asked him whether he remembered her: “We once danced at a dance event together!”. She was probably 30 years older than him but she was looking all flirty and attractive, smiling at him a smile that you could not help to return! She was not really trying to chat him up, of course, but then and there it struck me that she must have been a damn good catch at her time. Well, Grandpa, your loss!!!
One of the few times when I talked to Oma about Grandfather was when she called us to tell us that he had died. Mama and Papa were still at work so I answered the phone and there she told me. I was 9 years old and was confused to hear that news from her as they never really belonged together for me and I didn’t know how to react (his death, on the other side, wasn’t a real shock as he had been very ill for a long time and as he never knew how to treat his grandchildren he was not much closer to me than a stranger). Of course I was sad but during that phone call I was rather worried about what his death meant to Oma.
I’d love to see her happier time in Wertheim as her happy ending, but real life usually mixes too much drama in and true happy endings are rare. Oma developed dementia in her last years and I guess also a sort of geriatric depression.
She still missed Silesia very much and often told stories about her childhood there. But the mood of her stories had changed – she only seemed to want to get as much stories across as possible rattling on in a monotonous voice without seeming to realize you were sitting in front of her. I still remember how she told me about one exceptionally cold winter where she went ice skating on the river and had frostbite on her toes afterwards. I have heard this story several times but I remember it how she told it for me the last time. It was the day of her death and I somehow had the feeling while listening to her that part of her were already gone – a common feeling when meeting a person suffering from dementia. The world turns into a hostile place for them because they often don’t understand it anymore or – even worse – they realize in their clear moments that their brain doesn’t work properly anymore.
Today we know that you’re not supposed to convince a dement person when they misunderstand something – back then we didn’t know and this lead to several disputes with her (I especially remember when Oma and my aunt visited me in hospital and my aunt had a quarrel with Oma because she insisted that she never had heard of carnival in her whole life).
Also, I still have to cry when I imagine how my Oma had her hair made for the celebration of her 80th birthday with the Silesian Club and was waiting in the restaurant in vain for her visitors because she got mixed up with the date of the Silesian Club meeting! I was so sorry when Mama asked how it was and she told us in an upset manner “Nobody came!”.
Still, she sometimes had clear moments. Oma spend the weekend of Mama’s 54th birthday at our place and on Sunday she and Mama were sitting at the table together and I passed by as she asked her the question I told you before. I held my breath and couldn’t move for a moment. After all these years she wasn’t sure whether her decision had been right! The question caught Mama out of the blue. Surprised and nearly impatiently she said “Yes!” (a very elongated “yes”). “Yes, of course Mama.” I can’t remember if I stayed longer but I think I left the room out of decorum. However, as I said before, I wish I had gone to her and shouted: “Yes, Oma”. And I wish I had told her that I had the greatest respect for her for leaving her husband in a time where this was far from being normal or even socially acceptable! I wish I had told her how she was (and will always be) my heroine! In some way, life in the end was merciful to her. “One stroke in old age and that’s it.” That’s what she always said how she imagined a death with dignity.
The day of her death Mama and I had decided to take her to us, because we realized that finally she wasn’t able to live alone anymore. We received the phone call in the evening. Her neighbors said that Oma had collapsed in the staircase while talking to a neighbor and friend of her. Mama, Timo and I rushed to her. Timo waited downstairs to show the paramedics the way as soon as they arrived. Mama and I went upstairs.
There Oma was lying, part of her face strangely distorted – an effect of the stroke she had suffered. She wasn’t addressable any more. Mama turned to me to say something (I have forgotten what it was) when Oma opened her mouth for the last time and babbled something. Maybe it meant nothing. But for Mama and me “Traudl” was discernible. Traudl was Oma’s pet name for Mama. Mama rushed to her. “Yes, Mama, I am here. Everything will be fine!” I am very happy for Oma and for Mama that they had this moment together. Oma’s last time she had seen her own mother must have been some kind of trauma for her: Her mother was in quarantine in hospital and Oma wasn’t allowed to approach her. She looked at her through a window several meters away and they were only able to wave goodbye to each other. We’ll never know whether Oma really was trying to call Mama but I am convinced that Oma was still there and was able to feel Mama’s and my presence. The paramedics soon arrived. Oma had suffered a severe stroke and the doctor later told Mama and my aunt that if she survived, she would be a complete nursing case.
I woke up during the night because the telephone rang. I heard how my Mama stood up and took the call. I heard her leave the house and only then stood up. She had left a note: “Oma has passed away. I’m in the hospital. Kiss, Mama.”
Despite my grieve I was relieved: That was what she would have wanted!
I feel sorry for my little Oma when I think of how many things went wrong in her life. So at least she had deserved a quick death without ailment. When I pass the house with the flat that her children had rented for her so that she could leave her husband, I look up to the topmost balcony on the left and there I can still see her watching me and waving towards me. Oma, you want to know whether it was right to leave grandfather? Yes, Oma, nothing could have been more right and I am and will always be proud of you!