I meant to write this in time for the 4th anniversary of her passing away, but I was caught up in so much that I, as embarrassing as it is, forgot. I forgot it was that day. For the first time in four years, October 2nd came and went and I didn’t think of it.
She died October 7th, but we lost her five days earlier. My aunt found her lying outside on the lawn, just a minute or two after she’d spoken to the delivery guy who brought the new mattress for my aunt’s bedroom. It was an aneurism in her brain, and she never regained consciousness. She had just celebrated her 80th birthday, with all her family except for me, because I was travelling in Australia.
Hildegard was my grandmother on my mother’s side, and the only grandparent I was close to. She lived next door all my life. My mother raised three kids by herself, working part-time, so my grandma would come over and do the laundry, iron clothes, clean the house, bring food, and so on. Even when all three of us outgrew the age where we needed constant attention and care, she’d come over every day to see us and check up on us – and she always took the dried laundry with her and brought it back ironed, even when she clearly started having trouble standing long enough to iron a whole laundry basket full of kids’ clothes. (Personally, I’ve never understood my family’s obsession with ironing EVERY SINGLE PIECE of clothing – and towels!)
She was the greatest grandmother I could have ever asked for. She always let us win at boardgames, until we were old enough to figure it out, and even then, she usually still lost because she really did have extraordinarily bad luck with dice and cards. She tried to raise us to appreciate classical music and be proper Catholics (the former, successfully, the latter not so much), and she would let us sleep over at her place some weekends, which was always like an adventure, even though it was really only going next door. I can’t even count the number of times we ran out of milk, or butter, or eggs, and I went over to her place to ask for one of those things – only to come bag with both arms full of stuff that she “meant to give us anyways”, that she “just saw in the supermarket and thought we would like”, or, best of all, cookies or cake that were “just out of the oven, would you like some?”.
The day I lost her, the phone rang at 6:45 am Australian time – my mom was on the line. I was so sleepy I didn’t even pause to think why she called this early, and of course I complained. She didn’t say anything for a while, but the second she spoke, I knew something was terribly wrong. The following ten minutes were the saddest of my life. I sat alone in my little apartment in the middle of Brisbane, on my desk, clinging to the phone, crying wordlessly. I considered going home, maybe making it to see her one last time before she was gone forever – but she was already gone. I might have been able to make it to the funeral, but what for? She never liked graveyards, much less the people who spend weekends at their relatives’ graves. “That’s not where they are”, she’d say, and she was right. I went to her grave much later. She wasn’t there.
She’s in the really old and shapeless blue knit jacket that I kept, and in the small carpet she made by hand that is now in my bedroom. She’s in the old iron that I kept, because it still works, and because I remember her ironing all the time. She’s in the woollen socks that she made for all of us. I think of her whenever I find a white hair on my head, because she never stopped warning me about how all women in our family get white hair very early in life (she seems to have been right, sadly!). I think of her every time we make marble cake using her recipe. I think of her every Christmas – she’s everywhere. She’s in the cookies we make according to all her secret recipes, she’s in the songs we sing, she’s the reason I still like to go to church during advent, and the reason I feel bad when I do, because she was so critical of people who only go to church on Christmas and maybe Easter. I’ve become one of them, and she’d be sad about it.
But I like to think that she’d also be proud. She got to see me finish school with good grades, and she’d have been proud to see me finish a BA with similarly good results. She’d be happy I’m still living in Germany and not so far away as she feared I might, and she’d be proud that I know how to sew a button back onto a blouse. I like to think she’d be proud of the person I’ve become, just as much as she’d be proud of my siblings and cousins. I wish she could have seen my little sister graduate this year. I wish she could have lived another ten years and maybe have seen me get married and have a child. I know she’d have loved to be a great-grandmother.
Writing this is grieving her all over again. It’s amazing to me how painful this piece of writing can be after four years. I haven’t cried for her in a long time, and I’m almost glad I am crying now. I never want to stop missing her. Not missing her would mean not loving her. Not missing her would mean finding a way to fill the space she left behind, and there is nothing and nobody that can ever fill this space. In this space, I have room to remember her.
I want to end this piece on the note it began – remembering. I want to remember Hildegard – not just the grandmother I knew, but the person I knew through her stories. The sister who lost her brother in World War II. The daughter who lost her mother when she was younger than I am now. The wife whose husband left and who never even looked at another man again because she’d promised him faithfulness until death in the eyes of God. The mother who wanted sons and had three daughters instead, and realized it didn’t matter, and nothing could make her happier than her daughters did.
Most of all, I want to remember and share a story with you. It is the story of my grandmother Hildegard’s first kiss. I think it’s a better note to leave this story on than a crying twenty-something missing “Oma”… so here you go:
Hildegard was 16 years old in 1945. The war had just ended, and most of the German population lived in poverty. Hildegard’s former school remained closed after the war. It may have been that the building was destroyed, or it may have been that there weren’t enough people left in the village to fill the teaching positions. Therefore, Hildegard took a train to school every morning. Many teenagers did the same, so the trains were usually very crowded.
There was a boy she saw on the train every morning. Their eyes would meet and they would look away quickly, maybe sometimes smile shyly at each other. Eventually, they got to talk a little bit, and Hildegard realized she really liked this boy. The feeling was mutual, yet they were both too shy to ever bring it up, so for weeks they were content just riding the train together, chatting.
One day, the train was particularly crowded and there were no seats left. The ended up standing next to each other in the middle aisle. It was rainy and pretty dark outside on this day, the clouds wouldn’t let even a little bit of sun through, and it was pretty glum inside the train because the lights in the carriage were not working.
Then, as every day, on the way to school, the train had to pass through a tunnel. Since there were no lights in the carriage, it was suddenly pitch black dark. In those few seconds, when nobody could see, the boy she liked leaned over and kissed Hildegard.
The train exited the tunnel, they could see each other again, and for a moment, all they did was stare at each other. Then they both looked down and stared at their shoes. They never talked again… but for the rest of her life, the memory of that moment would put a smile on Hildegard’s face.