Thursday, April 8, 2010
(Oma and Opa on the day they became engaged in 1945.)
In the corner of my diningroom there now rests four boxes, all stacked and taped, awaiting life in our new condo. They contain some of the physical remnants of my mother-in-law’s life, bequeathed to us when she died very unexpectedly twelve years ago. Oma was an immigrant from Holland, who came to Canada with her husband and two small daughters in the early 1950’s. A tall, booming woman, who at six feet, had several inches over me. Years later, my daughter, Sarah-Beth, her much loved first kleindochter (granddaughter), born after eight grandsons in a row, would inherit her height.
We had an uneasy relationship at first. She had wanted her only son to marry a Dutch girl, the daughter of best friends, whom Gem had dated occasionally. My large, liberal, academic, artistic family were a complete enigma to her.
As I packed, carefully wrapping the lovely blue-and-white Delft plates and candlesticks, the precious cream cow my husband loved as a child, the collection of decades old silver teaspoons, the impeccable framed cross stitch pictures, and the pieces of fine embroidery, my thoughts were of Eva ... Oma.
Oma’s knick-knack laden home was always immaculate, and filled with thriving plants and spiced cookies and cups of tea. Hand-crocheted lace doilies rested under everything. Knitted afghans were carefully arranged over the spotless sofa and chairs. The furniture gleamed with daily polishing. She had the greenest thumb I’ve ever known ... flowers and plants bloomed for her copiously and joyously. She’d pinch off the tiniest clipping, stick it in a soil-filled paper cup, and miraculously, weeks later she would be transplanting a gloriously healthy plant.
A notoriously bad cook, Fridays were leftovers night at Oma's house. It didn't matter who was there for dinner, her austere wartime experiences had left an indelible frugality that served every item of leftover food the fridge may have gathered during the week. Thus, you could find yourself staring at a reheated pork chop while the person next to you had two meatballs and a slice of roast beef. Someone else might have a chicken leg at the same meal. The same went for the side-dishes ... a few tablespoons of peas, a portion of rice, a couple boiled potatoes, it was all divvied up and served. You were rewarded, though, for ploughing your way through this eclectic repast. Friday nights Oma always served Dutch cooked chocolate pudding with whipped cream for dessert.
Oma used a number of Dutch expressions to great affect. One in particular used to make me laugh every single time I heard it. Whenever anything tasted particularly delicious, she would always say a certain phrase in Dutch, and then follow that up with its English translation, "This is so good, it’s like a little angel peeing on your tongue!” Gem and I would catch eyes, and giggle. The first time she saw my best friend, Dave, after discovering that he was gay, she said to him, "Yah, I thought there was a little sugar in your blood, liefje". Gem and I have often jokingly called Dave 'Sugar' ever since.
Oma and Opa met each other at the end of the second world war, on the day that peace was declared and there was dancing in the streets of Holland. A young man grabbed a young woman, strangers to each other, and pirouetted her into a dance. I’ve always thought it was a very romantic beginning, and I loved to hear Oma tell the story.
By the time of Oma’s death, a deep mutual love and respect had grown between us. A very robust woman, whom I had never known to be sick a day in her life, we were all extremely shaken when she died in the ICU from septic shock after suffering a ruptured bowel. As fate would have it, as her family and I took turns sitting with her throughout that long day and night, it was me, alone, that was with her when she slipped away. A long shape in the bed, her raw-boned strength a mere ghost, I was holding her hand when she died. There’s an especial grace and beauty in that.
Nothing profound was ever said between us. No life-changing revelations. What existed between us was simplicity. Love possessed and given.
Now, today, handling her things, they feel like small indrawn breaths waiting to gently exhale. There is the hush of life in them. They proclaim a comforting stillness, utterly old and forever new. They are both silent and eloquent; mute and yet they speak. They beat with the pulse of Oma’s story.
(This post is part of Sepia Saturday.)