Thursday, April 8, 2010

Remembering Oma

(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.)


  1. What a moving account and tribute. So interesting how relationships change over time. The fact that a "..deep mutual love and respect.." had grown between you, speaks volumes for your respective personalities.

    Reading this made me wonder. Perhaps you would consider taking part in our Sepia Saturday posts (details at

    Started by Alan Burnett and Kat Mortensen, Sepia Saturday has become popular with those interested in posting stories around old photographs from their collections. You would be most welcome, and Oma's story would fit very comfortably.

  2. Lovely post. I think you look very much like your beautiful Oma.

  3. Terrific story, thoroughly enjoyed it. Your descriptions were lovely, made me feel like I was in Oma's house with all her knick-knacks and plants. Love the Friday leftovers part - that happened in our house too - must be those frugal 1940's & 50's housewives, as my mom was one to never waste anything! Wonderful poignant story, thanks!

  4. I cried when I read this and I'm sure you cried when you wrote it. It's a beautiful tribute to this woman.

  5. I could immediately see a resemblance between you and her! Love the engagement picture...they look so happy and in love!

    We have leftovers like that where everyone eats something different! We call it "clean out the fridge night". :)

  6. Such a beautiful story and tribute. I really loved seeing her needlework. Thank you for introducing her to us.

  7. Wonderful post; you have such lovely mementoes to treasure her memory.

    I will definitely be using that "angel peeing on the tongue" line in the not-too-distant future!

    Kat (Poetikat)

  8. What an eloquent portrait! I love the way that you don't try to make your relationship more profound than it was. I like the way that you don't make Oma too perfect. People are more believable and lovable with a few flaws.

  9. I thought this was your Sepia Sat post, because the one ahead of it to your sister surely isn't sepia age! I read both and enjoyed them. Gorgeous sister you have there. This one of Oma, from your eyes is memorable; I admire the handwork a lot. I treasure all my similar acquisitions. A time gone by, and busy hands creating.

  10. You described you mother in law so wonderfully. I know it was hard to see her go and she was still a woman who was always herself. I really enjoyed all that your wrote.

  11. That final paragraph is so full of meaning : I have read it three or four times already and keep nodding my head in agreement to both what you say and the way you say it. "There is the hush of life in them" : that could be the mission statement of Sepia Saturday,

  12. AnonymousMay 28, 2010

    My 90 year old father died within 24 hours of septis on Janurary 23, 2010. His wife and children were there to hold his hand as he died. My mother then moved into our home. She is my daughter's Oma, and her new home, like her old, sounds much like your mother-in-law's! I'm a grandmother now...but my mother is Oma.