On Sunday my Oma passed away. The more I think about her, the more I have to say. So I figured what better way for a writer to process than to write it out. This is gonna get a little long, so buckle up.
Growing up my joke was that while all my cousins lived within three hours of Oma and Opa, I was a three-hour plane ride. There were obvious downsides to being the one that didn’t live in easy driving distance, but there were unexpected upsides as well. When they came to visit, I got them all to myself, and even as a child I talked to Oma on the phone more than I saw her in person.
In the early 2000s when my parents moved halfway around the world, my Mother and I made a deal. I might not always be able to call her, but I had to call Oma instead. So began a many years tradition of weekly phone calls with Oma. For almost a decade Oma and I talked on the phone 3 to 4 times a month. So here, in somewhat chronological order, are my favourite of Oma’s phone stories.
My Oma was born in 1925 in Holland to a large family. To help support her family, she left school at 14. At the time she didn’t have a bicycle so she rode on the back of her father’s bike to work each day. She was supposed to ride with one leg off each side of the bike, like riding a horse, but she was more comfortable with both legs on the same side. Each time they saw the police she had to pull her leg through so they wouldn’t get in trouble.
She and my Opa married, twice, when she was 24. They had to marry twice because in Holland church and state are separate and the government doesn’t recognize religious ceremonies. So they had a ceremony at, I think, city hall, and then a month later they were married in the church. I also married twice. Once legally in a Canadian courthouse and then in a more formal religious ceremony in Mexico a few weeks later.
When people ask about my two ceremonies, I tell them it is a family tradition to get married twice. May it bring me as many years of happiness as it brought my grandparents. They were happily married for 70 years!
A year after marrying Oma and Opa had their first child, my Mom. When I was pregnant with my son, Oma would tell me how jealous she was of ultrasounds and other technologies that let you know the baby was okay. I told her I was jealous of her midwife.
She had her first four children at home in Holland with a midwife. When she had my Mom, the midwife made Opa put blocks under the bed before my mom was born so it would be higher. That way it would be easier for him to take care of them. The midwife also made soup, so they would have food for after the baby came.
Oma said it was a stark contrast to when she had her fifth child, my Aunt. My Aunt was the first in our family to be born in Canada. “Nicole,” Oma said, “They made Opa leave the room each time they checked me under the sheet. It was nothing he hadn’t seen before. How did they think the baby got there!” She said that if she had had a sixth child she was going back to Holland. I don’t think I would blame her.
Oma and Opa came to Canada with their four small children when my Mom was 8. I can’t imagine coming to a country where you don’t speak the language. They didn’t expect to even see their homeland again, but they came to Canada to provide a better life for their children.
They traveled on a Holland America ship (My mother years later wrote to them to get the points, they gave them to her!). When they arrived the immigration woman who processed them asked Oma and Opa questions in English. Oma and Opa didn’t understand English and shook their heads. Then the woman tried french. Again Oma and Opa shook their heads. The woman tried french again, but this time she spoke very slowly. When Oma and Opa still didn’t understand, she gave a great huff, stamped all their paperwork, and shooed them along.
While I was learning to knit, I shared my excitement about this new skill with Oma. I didn’t realize at the time that she was also a knitter. We compared notes and I told her about a sweater pattern I was knitting. “I don’t use patterns,” she told me. She had a better grasp of garment construction than I did and knew when to increase and decrease by how things looked as she went. I would be lost without a pattern. I’m still impressed by that skill.
She also told me about (and later showed me) her knitting supply chest. It was a padded box a friend had made. It could be used as a stool but opened on top. She let me have some stitch holders and a few knitting needles that I still have tucked away with my knitting things.
I am my grandparents’ first granddaughter. I was also born on Oma’s birthday. When my mother called to tell my Oma that I had been born she didn’t get the response she expected. Oma told her to stop being ridiculous and to “put Bill on the phone.” She believed I was a girl, and that I was born on her birthday, but the idea that my mother could be calling so soon after birth was silly. My Dad assured her that I had arrived, was a girl, was indeed born on her birthday, and that the hospital had brought a phone right into the delivery room for them.
For years Oma and I have raced to call each other on our shared birthday. For a few years, she got sneaky and would call when I was at work, so she could win. Each time our conversation started the same way. “Happy Birthday.” “Happy birthday to you too.”
There are other great stories, and countless memories of time spent with Oma. But the thing I will miss the most is these phone calls. The stories she shared, the encouragement she gave, and the love she had will all be sorely missed.