When I was a little girl, we visited Germany often. It’s part of my past, yes, but it goes back much further. I am first generation American, meaning I am the first person in my family to be born here. From my mom’s side anyway.
It’s hard for me to imagine now, that 60 years ago, my grandparents picked up everything they owned, plus two small girls, and climbed aboard a boat towards what they hoped would be a better future.
But they did.
Which carried ribbons of connections here, to a new place, and new lives, and new language, and new everything.
Everything *I* knew culturally as a child, besides our normal apple pie and baseball and fireworks on the 4th of July, was wrapped up in Germany.
So it’s no surprise I spoke German at a very young age. Of course, lack of use and laziness has wiped so much from my memory banks, but also much remains. When we visited Germany, I spoke German, ate German, lived German.
Germans call their grandmothers “Oma.” My Oma was big-boned with thick, strong arms from working in the shoe factory after moving to the States. She was stern, but also very, very quick to laugh – I can still hear it in my head as I write this.
The house where my family grew up stands on hill in a very, very small town. Streets weave back and forth, connecting neighbors between the hedges… But there was still room for a garden, and rabbit hutches behind the house – things that became essential for making it through the war. There was a small patio in back where friends would congregate, and others would lean out from windows above. Conversations flowing back and forth about nothing and everything, while the apple tree whispered in the wind behind them.
It also was chaotic. Family overflowed the house, especially when we came to visit. Aunts, uncles, cousins, people not related but somehow they were, all jumbled together in with my great-grandparents – mass confusion. The noise was wonderful, but could be overwhelming.
As the story goes, at a particularly chaotic moment, I kept calling for my Oma. But not REALLY my Oma… I wanted Johanna. The little one. The one who ran the household in soft tones while her husband blustered about.
Apparently, at 5 years old, I was as direct as I am now, because I screamed through the din, “Ich will den kleineren Oma. DU bist die kleinen! DU bist KLEIN OMA!” What that meant, other than my ability to shout in German, was that I had given my great-grandmother a new name.
Klein Oma. Small grandmother.
It stuck. Everyone called her that. From that moment, until the day she passed away in the mid-80’s.
I didn’t even know it was me who had named her until much, much later – after her death.
Now, as I think back on it, I can see the moment in my head, without actually remembering it. Those times seem to be ingrained in me. Like part of my psyche knows every moment we spent there and mixed it all together as a feeling.
Which makes it so easy to bring Klein Oma back.