At Christmastime, it’s only natural to think of loved ones who are no longer with us. The holiday is an especially poignant time of year for my family. My father passed away one week before Christmas. My grandmother passed two weeks later. Grandma didn’t know Dad had died, and I always thought she must have been so surprised to get to Heaven and find him waiting there to greet her.
My friend, Adam Sendek (Chowderhead to many of you), has a special remembrance of his Great Grandmother. I’m honored that he has agreed to share his story here with you today:
A Christmas Gift
It was three years ago on this date that I received a Christmas gift that I’ll never forget. The present was a collection of memories wrapped in modest paper with neatly tucked edges – the box obscuring the contents inside.
My Great Grandmother was the matriarch of our family. She was the glue that held together a dispersed group of people that were reunited each and every holiday because of her.
She was a Romanian born immigrant, relocated to Austria, and the mother of four small children during the Second World War. My Great Grandfather served for the German Army during that time, and she was left behind to find a way to keep her unit alive and fed.
I was fascinated by the stories that she told about her time in Austria during the war; the anxiety of having to hide out in a basement with the lights off, sitting quietly with her young family, without her husband, and waiting for the American Bombers to pass over. The instructions were very simple: don’t turn on the lights. If the lights were on, that was the signal for the American planes to drop their payloads.
At any moment, life could have ceased at the mere flick of a switch.
They didn’t have the luxury then of indoor plumbing either. Some of the people in that communal living space would become so terrified during the raids that they’d have to run to the outhouse during the flyovers.
She told me about the times when she would sneak bread through the POW camp fences to my Great Grandfather after he was captured. She described how all of the grass around and inside the fencing was missing – the captives using it for sustenance by making soup out of it. Apparently anything feeds a stomach that’s hungry enough.
She told me stories about her peasant upbringing, and about the modest food that they would make out of virtually nothing more than cornmeal, milk, eggs, flour, cabbage, and if fortunate enough, a chicken. They made and repaired their own clothing, and walked wherever they needed to go, because they didn’t own a car or any other means of transportation.
Christmas was a modest tradition as well, but a very important one. Homemade gifts and oranges were about all that was ever to be had on the morning of the holiday. It was a religious holiday – a time for thanks and prayer.
She never went to college, never drove a car, and never had a ‘real’ job per se; but she was a nurturer, a protector, and a provider of so many things to so many people. Despite her lack of experience in many life categories, she was as sharp as a tack – even at the age of 96.
She spoke four languages, memorized all of her recipes, she was knitter, and surprisingly hip to the American culture, even if she didn’t practice much of it herself. She was up on politics and current pop culture happenings of the day, yet one would never assume it at a mere glance. To any outsider she was probably just some little old immigrant lady that needed to assimilate better and work on her English-speaking skills.
She always made something for me to eat whenever she knew I was coming by to visit, and we’d sit together over a half shell of beer and talk. She was tickled by the little bit of German that I picked up from listening in on the adult conversations over the years. It was effortless to make her laugh, and she adored me in every way possible – always commenting on how handsome, smart, and charming she found me, and always making a note of our height differential.
She would always tell the same stories about us from when we were little kids. I knew the stories by heart, and I knew when they were about to happen, because they were always told in the same tone with the same delivery every time. Even after hearing them so many times before, it never got old because I knew that they were memories that she very much cherished. Her family was her life.
It was after the War had ended, when she and her family made the long boat trek to the States to start a new life. They’d been sponsored by family friends that had already moved here – friends from the old country. She regularly sent care packages consisting of canned food, clothing, and money to friends still living overseas who were surviving on much less.
Life was different now, and the abundance was never taken for granted. There was so much, and at times it overwhelmed her. She cried often about the simplest things – the simplest gifts or experiences – and she was grateful for everything she had: a car, a home, a place to earn a living and modest pension, and personal safety. It was just a simple life built around food, family gatherings, and God.
As I watched her lying there quietly in her hospital bed three years ago today, I remembered all these things. I recalled the stories and the sacrifices that were made, and all the times that she sent me packing with a hug, a lot of kisses, and some kind of German dish or canned item to have later. I remembered how much unconditional love she gave to me and the rest of her family throughout her time spent here.
Spending the holiday in the hospital with her wasn’t ideal, but I’m glad I was there with her as she quietly passed away. It was a time for me to remember her life and the impact that she had on mine. I didn’t recognize it as a gift at the time, but it turned out to be a gift that was far more important than anything I’d ever gotten any Christmas prior.
On this day a candle is lit to remind us of the place she holds in our hearts.
Thank you, Oma. You’re a gift never forgotten.