Klein Oma

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.

On The BoatThe daughters grew up, became American.

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.

My Great GrandparentsMy great-grandmother, Johanna, from whom I received my middle name, was tiny. Small. Impish. I know her smile.

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.

This article has 19 comments

  1. San

    Haha…. this is a great story! It’s funny how kids can come up with the most “useful” names… 🙂

    (There is a similar story in my family!)

    Are you still keeping up with your German at all?

  2. Aimee Greeblemonkey

    San – I understand much much better than I speak. It’s pathetic really!

  3. Megan

    Love this, Aimee. What a lovely memory.

  4. pdxhadey

    What a great story! My family (both sides) is from Holland, and while my older brothers and I were all born there, my younger brother was born in the US. We are the first generation to live in the States, and our children the first to be born here. I never spent any time in Holland growing up, but my parents raised us with a strong Dutch culture; and although it’s harder to keep that going with our children, they still call their grandparents (my dad & mom) Opa and Oma. I love it, and hope it continues when I become an Oma too. 🙂

  5. zipper


  6. Anonymous

    So you DO remember something from your childhood!! Very precious memories

    Aunt Heidi

  7. Lisa

    What a neat story and heritage! My family is French and it got confusing with all the grandmothers. So, one of my grandmothers – the smallest and eldest – was called Memere from the Mountain (she once lived on a mountain). I think the memere part is some sort of French slang for grandmother. Your story brings back fond memories for me!

  8. Grey Street Girl

    P.S. I’m pretty much an idiot. It’s a long story why, but I just inadvertently posted that comment under my cousin Lisa’s account. Whoops! Need more caffeine!

  9. Mixtape Jones

    My mom’s maiden name is Fields. When my cousin John (the oldest grandchild on that side of the family) was very young, he noticed that his mom called our grandmother “Mother.” He logically concluded that this must be her first name, and thusly christened her with what all the grandchildren call her to this day: “Mother Fields.”

  10. Sarah

    Beautiful 🙂

  11. Anonymous

    We had all kinds of different funky names for family members! Glad I am not alone! – m

  12. Jenny @ Crash Test Mommy

    What a precious story.

    I think it’s wonderful you have such a strong family heritage. My ancestors were Cherokee (I am 1/32 Cherokee), but I know next to nothing about the culture. Sad, that.

  13. Tree

    Fantastic memory! I love this and I thank you for sharing.

  14. Magpie

    Really lovely.

    I have German ancestors on my father’s side, and my father’s grandfather was always known as Opa Miller. Funnily, the only one in that generation that I knew wasn’t called Oma – she was just Great Grandma.

  15. Dunia Ibadah

    I like your post, I hope you are happy, greetings from Indonesian bloggers.

  16. Bethany

    Very cool… I really enjoyed the story and a glimpse into small Aimee!

  17. San

    Wir müssen üben… 🙂

  18. Charlie

    Coincidentally, my mom immigrated to the States from Germany in 1955. She was born & raised in Hamburg and had endured the war. Afterward she had a series of secretarial jobs and wanted to travel, but her mother forbid her. So when my grandmother died of cancer in 1954, my mom started making plans. It would only be a visit, she told my grandfather. He made her promise to return within 2 years. While she was here, she lived in the Bronx with a German “sponsor” family, then convinced her employer to transfer her to the San Fran office so she could tour the country by bus. Somewhere among her things I still have her photos and postcards. When she returned to NYC, she met my dad and fell in love. But she did return to Germany as promised, to tell her father she was engaged. Today mom is 85, has severe Alzheimer’s, and lives in a nursing home. But when we go visit, Tori still calls her “Omie Herta.”

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