30 years ago today (26 February), my Oma passed away from intestinal cancer, 1 month shy of her 66th birthday and about 1 month after the diagnosis. I was nearly 13 when she passed away, just shy of that age where you start appreciating the stories and history your parents and grandparents share with you, if you’re interested in family history and that sort of thing.
A few months ago, one of my cousins asked me what Oma was like, and one thing that struck me recently was that out of all my cousins on my Dad’s side of the family, probably only my brother Brian and I remember or knew Oma the best.
My older cousins lived in Atlanta, so they didn’t see Oma as often as we did. There was a time where we would stop over to visit Oma and Opa every week after church (they lived a few blocks north of church on School Street in Mount Prospect), and, of course, we would also see her at times like Christmas and Easter. I think, as a child, you tend to be more interested in the things closer to you and your interests and your age that impact you the greatest, and that’s not always your grandparents or family, sadly.
The rest of my cousins on the Fack side of the family are my brother Jeremy’s age or younger. Since Jeremy was 3 when Oma passed away, that makes the rest of the cousins 3 to not even born yet at the time.
So when my cousin asked me what Oma was like, it threw me for a bit of a loop. I had always assumed they knew Oma and had the same experiences I had had, but when I thought about it, I realized they didn’t know her at all.
And so much time has passed, and so much happened in my life since then, that it sometimes is hard to remember, what was she like?
Oma was born and raised in the northwest part of Germany. After World War 2, she and my Opa moved to the United States, when my Dad was young. While they went back to visit Germany at least twice that I can remember — and I could be wrong — they lived in Chicago from the 1950s onwards.
I remember her being a kind woman. Hugging her was soft, and you felt a strong sense of strength and kindness and love emanating from her. Still, there was a sadness to her as well. I can’t explain it other than an impression, and, when I found out more about her history as I grew older, I came to understand perhaps where that hint of sadness came from. (I wonder if she missed home.) Despite it all, she always struck me as a very strong woman.
She always seemed very immaculate and fashion-conscious. I don’t ever recall seeing her looking other than always very well-presented and stylish. She had a profound love for a minty-green type of color, and I remember their house being painted that color at one point, as well as Oma having clothes that color too. Something strikes me that she even had eye-shadow that color, but that could be me misremembering it.
When she disagreed strongly with something you said, she’d scrunch her face up, shake her head tightly, and utter a deep, prolonged, “Noooooo…” You definitely knew she didn’t agree with what you were saying when she did that.
And when Oma and Opa had a disagreement? The argument changed to rapid-fire German.
Sometimes, when we visited them, she would bring out Gummibären (gummy bears) in a small wooden bowl for us to snack on. Every time I see gummy bears now, I think of her. Yes, even when I walk past them in the supermarket here in New Zealand!
At Christmas, she would decorate the tree with little German chocolate decorations, including ones with marzipan inside them. I remember being excited to get the marzipan ones because they tasted so good, and it was such a treat because we only really got marzipan at Christmas.
One time, when I was really young, Oma sent Mom and Dad home with a box of Apple Jacks — Mom didn’t allow us to have sweet breakfast cereals usually — and I remember the power going out at home one time, and I asked Mom if I could have a bowl of Apple Jacks that Oma gave us. I must’ve been about 4 at the time, because we were living in our house on Central Road then.
I don’t remember a lot of the conversations we had, except one. Not too long before she died, Oma was babysitting us for some reason. She’d picked us up from school and we went to Randhurst, a local shopping mall. We pulled into a parking space on the northwest side of the mall — we normally didn’t park on that side of the mall — and as we were getting ready to get out of the car, she said something about she knew I didn’t love her as much as I loved my other grandmother. It shocked me because I didn’t feel that that was true, and trying to compare the two women who were totally different wasn’t right, in my mind. Oma, at that point in time, probably had 7 grandchildren from 3 out of her 5 children, while Grandma had 3 grandchildren from her only child. I think I responded that what she said wasn’t true and I did love her, and I think the conversation ended at that, although I do remember feeling very hurt the rest of the day.
The day she was diagnosed with cancer, I remember coming home from school and my Dad, on the phone in the kitchen, turning to face me, his eyes red. When they told us, we got very upset. I remember crying a lot in the back porch of our house that afternoon.
In that day and age, children weren’t really allowed to visit critically ill people in the hospital, so I never got a chance to tell her I loved her and let her know how much she meant to me. For a very long time, I felt very guilty about that.
The day she died, I remember coming home and taking my shoes off at the front door, seeing my aunt and uncles and Dad around our dining room table. The mood was mixed: partially an air of relief, partially of sadness, partially of that joking that only siblings can do. When I found out, I was upset, yes, but I also felt very guilty at feeling relieved her suffering was over.
Being one of the pall bearers at her funeral, I remember the casket being so heavy and being afraid I would drop it because I was crying so much. When we got to the grave site and I saw the hole in the ground, grief overcame me. I think I was standing with my Aunt Joan under an umbrella, and she comforted me.
I had nightmares for about a month until, one night, I had a very hyper-real dream. Oma and I were in her kitchen, the sunlight pouring through the windows (albeit soft sunlight). She looked so healthy and vibrant, but she was also slightly worried. Gummy bears appeared in a bowl at the table in front of me, and we started talking small-talk until I said something along the lines of she was dead. She replied that we never really die, we just change and move on, and that everything was okay.
I woke up accepting she was gone.
There were other hyper-real dreams I had with her in it. One, in high school, was in a toy shop. There was a very unique toy another guy and I were watching, one that I had grown up with but probably other kids hadn’t. Oma was sort of a commentator or a narrator, and she said to me that the guy was someone I was going to love very much, but he would hurt me very deeply. I met him a few years later, the symbol of the toy being the sign, and she was right. He did hurt me very deeply.
As I grew older, and her death become more distant, the dreams stopped. Maybe it means she has moved on; I don’t know.
I’m not as stylish or as well-rounded as my Oma, but I sure do look like her. Posting a photo of her on Facebook a few years ago (see above), most of my friends thought it was a picture of me in drag. I always joke I got her big Bierfrau frame and an unnatural ability to carry multiple bier steins at once.
About 15 years ago, my Dad gave me an audio tape of an interview my Aunt Lisa did with my Oma and Opa a few years after I was born. It took me a long while to have the courage to sit down and listen to it. When I did, Oma’s voice haunted me. The stories from World War 2, the ones she never shared with me (and probably for good reason), were heart-wrenching and pretty scary. But it was good to hear her voice again after so long.
To be honest, I feel awful that I can’t remember more. There’s more that I’d like to share with my cousins who didn’t know Oma, but that’s the limit of what I can remember right now.
Overall, I can’t believe it’s been 30 years since she passed away. But, whenever I look in the mirror, I will always be reminded of her.