“Oma” is the German word for grandma. These two short memoirs are the beginning of a larger collection centering around my Oma and how my perception of her has changed over time.
5 years old
On those late nights in December when Mama was downstairs in her childhood room sleeping, Oma would sit me in front of the television. Every time they put me into bed, my mind would snap awake the instant the light switch flipped off. Jetlag left me restless, ready to explode after just a few minutes in the silence of the room. Soon I would be scampering through the darkness up the cold stone steps to the living room.
Oma would be sitting on her favorite sofa, slumped against the worn leather, eyes closed and chin resting on her sternum. Her hands would be folded in her lap, a perpetual frown tugging at the corners of her mouth.
I would stand in the doorway for a few seconds watching the white light from the T.V. illuminate her face before stepping into the room, door closing behind me with a click.
Oma’s eyes would open and she would nod gravely.
“I can never sleep this early, either.”
“It’s two in the morning!” I would giggle.
“Old women like me don’t need to sleep” she would reply, a sly smile playing on her lips.
I would climb onto the sofa and sit criss-cross applesauce, nestling myself in thick, soft blankets. I would watch Oma as she began to nod off again. The dim yellow lights glowed with warmth while the soft murmur of voices from the television lulled me into a trance. Eyelids would droop like leaden weights, tugging closed by fatigue from hours of excitement and flying across the ocean. Comfortable and content, I would fall asleep.
8 years old
Oma used to tell me stories of when she was young. Mama, Oma, and I would sit around the dining room table on cushions so old that all color had seeped out of them. Coffee for Mama and Oma and piping hot peppermint tea for me. Sometimes Oma told her stories gravely, matter of factly. Other times a memory that had been long forgotten would resurface, and the spirit inside her would stir. During these moments I was allowed the sweet experience of soaking up a snippet of her previous life. She often had to pause to take in short, ragged breaths.
As a child Oma would race her brother and his friends up the big hill in winter. She tells me that any time she ran, she always beat the boys. I imagine her, legs stretching and pumping, feet crunching into the snow and lungs burning from the cold. She would reach the top far before the rest, cheeks pink and frostbitten, black crystals creeping into the periphery of her vision, exhausted, triumphant.
When winters got especially bitter, her lungs would deteriorate. The bronchitis was suffocating. It wracked her young nimble body with fever and kept her confined to her bed. Like a caged bird, she longed to unfurl her wings and feel the freedom of wind whistling through her hair. But when she dreamed of running free, she would slip back into consciousness only to find sheets tangled between her fingers, slick with sweat.
When she returned to school it was as if someone had left her by the side of the road in a foreign country. Mathematics was a cryptic language, “furchtbar!” Later, when she got a job working at a bank, she lied in her application, claiming that she was capable of doing complex calculations, but in truth she had missed so much school that she really wasn’t.
“So… what did you do?”
Oma looked over at me, a glint in her eye. “I taught myself how.”
Once, Oma told me that when she was young, a man stopped in his tracks on the street and told her that she had the most beautiful hands he had ever seen. Her eyes twinkled with pride as she recounted the praise.
She looked down at her hands, swollen. The twinkle faded out.
Today when she walks, she loses her breath right away. I watch her as she moves, torso slightly bent to the ground. I imagine that she is leaning forward in anticipation, trying to accelerate. But her lungs are obstructed and her legs can’t carry her how they used to. Her hands are crippled.
I sit at the old table in the dining alcove by the window. My tea has gone cold, but it’s still poised in my hands. Dusk has settled and through the quiet of the house I hear the faint ticking of a clock. Mama looks down into her coffee cup, and Oma’s face settles back into its usual look of resignation. But in her eyes I see a twinge of something else–grief, perhaps.
“I’ll put these away,” she says, abruptly taking my mug. She opens the door to the kitchen and rushes through. A cold draft sweeps through the room, fracturing the moment. Mama looks up from her cup and smiles warmly at me, but with sadness in her eyes. She stands up and lays a hand on my head, then brings her cup into the kitchen.
This piece started as a memory that popped into my head late at night while I was brainstorming. After I had written it down, more memories followed, piling up in my head. They all had something in common; they had taken place in my grandmother’s house in Germany, and they were all about an interaction I had had with my grandmother. At the time I had been thinking a lot about my grandma and the stories she tells. I knew I wanted to write about my memories of her, and how my perception of her has shifted over time.
Every pair session, Heather and I meet at a cafe in the city and sit down to edit. She reads my work aloud, and we pick apart my writing together. You can find us staring at the dregs in empty coffee cups, people watching, and struggling to come up with the right word for the crystalline structure of a snowflake.
Alina Mertens-Schill is a high school sophomore who enjoys reading, drawing, and running in her free time. She enjoys historical fiction, and her favorite book is Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee. Alina always carries a sketchbook on her and draws whenever she can, whether that's in the subway or in class at school. She runs cross country and is incredibly proud of the progress she has made over the years! She loves to travel and experience different cultures. For Alina, friends and family are the most important people in the world and she loves spending time with them.