My grandmother, Neta, was a slight woman. In a crowd, you might not notice her. She was quiet and diminutive, would not draw attention to herself, and would be embarrassed if anyone singled her out for anything. She would be the one apt to serve behind the scenes.
When we first saw her, she always hugged us, fast, fierce hugs with a quick release that thrust you backwards at the end. My Uncle Fred said that she had never hugged him as a child. She had learned to hug later in life, when her children brought home spouses. Perhaps hugging wasn’t a German custom, or perhaps she had simply been too tired and weary as a young homeless mother to demonstrate affection.
She’d also greet us with a double-edged compliment. “You look ugly, you’ve gotten so thin!” she’d exclaim, which I always took as a compliment, or “You look beautiful, look how fat you’ve gotten!” which one hated to hear. She was thin as a sparrow, and found her inability to gain weight unsightly. That must be what living through famines did to your sense of body weight; the ability to be a little plump designated peace, prosperity, and happiness. In fact, when you ate at her table, she’d pile the food on your plate, expecting you to eat every morsel. The more you ate, the greater the compliment to her. My parents said as a young girl at my grandmother’s house I once ate 14 veraniche in one sitting, until the sweat poured off me, while the adults sat around smiling. I shudder and ask, “Why didn’t you stop me?” But Oma nourished with love, which was spelled F-O-O-D.
She loved to cook. Unlike my mother, who followed recipes and was tidy in the kitchen, when Oma cooked, there might be flour flung into the air, or left spilled on a counter. She needed no recipes, and if you asked her for one, to my mother’s exasperation, her cooking instructions were “a handful of this or a dash of that.”
She was not materialistic. She would wear the same housedress for days. My mom and dad tried many times to give her gifts that would enhance her life – a microwave, for instance, which she made them take back. She’d greet most gifts with a sigh, and say, “Oh, I don’t need anything.” In the end, all she wanted for Christmas was toilet paper and hair dye, things she could use up. She looked much more youthful in her 60s than she did in her troubled 30s, being full of energy and even coloring her hair until her 90th birthday. “I don’t want grey hair, it makes you look so OLD,” she would say in her 70s and 80s, “and I’m not so old yet!”
Her house was impeccably kept. She painted the cement in her garage, and the cement on her porch, to make it look tidy. She painted the rocks along her yard white, too. She never let weeds grow in her garden, and she loved flowers, which lined her front porch and filled her beds. She enjoyed tending her vegetable garden. Even in her last years, she would sweep off her own roof and mow her own lawn.
When we stayed over at her house, she had the most wonderful bedding. She would buy blankets from the MCC thrift store, layer them, and encase them in pretty sheets. Snuggling down in those heavenly, heavy layers was wonderful. When she passed away, everybody wanted those blankets. I think it was symbolic. You felt enshrouded in love, in protection, in comfort at her house.
She was a devoted grandmother. When my sisters and I were small, she once played in the tiny front coat closet with the door shut for an hour. She played a part in our puppet shows. The ability to play with her children wasn’t a luxury that she was granted as a mother, so she made the most of her role as a grandmother. She hid Easter Eggs for us in her yard and house, and each Easter, even once we grew into adulthood, she still gave each grandchild a chocolate bunny. She sent us birthday cards each year, always with some cash and a birthday note. And she was a storyteller. Whenever we asked, she would tell us the most wonderful stories, often settling down at the table with an after-dinner cup of coffee. She wasn’t prone to fantasy, so she always talked about her life and her past. She never exaggerated or embellished, and yet her stories were riveting, unlocking times of hardship and fear and fleeing, when food was scarce, bombs were near, and war was looming.
Her guardian angels were legendary in our family. Not only did she survive many times when death came near (including nearly dying of starvation when she was 20, and surviving World War II as a refugee), but her durability was lifelong. As an older woman, she would carry hundreds of dollars in cash in her purse (without identification), and forget it places. She would leave her purse in a store, where it would stay untouched for hours until she retraced her steps. Once she left it in the back of a taxi, and the driver drove more than an hour, no charge, to return it to her intact. Yet one dark night when she was in her 80s, she was mugged while walking home from church. The mugger punched her in the eye and threw her to the ground, but, she said triumphantly, he only got one dollar! In that same decade, she was hit by a car, surviving with bumps and bruises and a broken arm. And she had a lump in her breast for five years that she failed to mention to anyone because she was too modest to let her doctor see that part of her body; still, the cancer didn’t overtake her. And the stories go on. We, her extended family, thought she must have a legion of exhausted, award-winning angels in heaven, determined to keep this gentle woman alive until her time came.
And it did eventually come, when she was 91 years old. It was pancreatic cancer in the end. We were all surprised that her life was so short – somehow we expected her to live on and on, to 100 at least. When her coffin was rolled into the Clearbrook Mennonite Church, the congregation arose. I thought that it must be the first standing ovation she had ever gotten in her life, and she would have been so embarrassed if she had been alive. But it was a wonderful tribute to this quiet, riveting woman. My aunt Helen put out a book table at her funeral, giving away copies of Lead, Kindly Light, the book based on Neta’s memoirs that she had translated and fleshed out. My grandmother’s friends were so surprised...the book had been out four years and was even selling in Germany, and yet she had never mentioned it to any of them. “I’m nobody special,” she would say. “They all have stories just like mine.” And that was true, but somehow, the simplicity with which she lived and spoke, and the incredible life she had lived, made a striking mark on her family. It bears re-telling, even after she is gone.