The grandmother to whom I was close to my whole life was a German immigrant named Ida. I called her Oma. She Always held the smell of fresh cheese blintzes in her hands, seemed to tidy every inch of her space by magically moving through the room, and had the word hands of a true artisan. She rarely bought anything other than groceries and supplies for crafts. Her genius started off as a child in war torn Poland learning five languages, in addition to sewing, knitting, cooking German and Polish cuisine while withstanding a world war.
Oma came to this country when she was in her early 20s, with a young child (my mother) and a rather stubborn handsome husband. Standing only 4’ 11” and with a waifish frame, Oma was the main bread-winner. She would sew her latest trendy outfits at night, then go to work on Wall Street during the day. She worked for high powered lawyers and later running the front office of a company making paper products. During this time her husband went to work learning English and finding odd jobs as a mechanic or carpenter. Between the two of them, they could do almost everything, except take care of my mother. She claims to have been raised by a library in the Bronx.
I never knew if it was being raised by a library that made my mom absent, or the fact that she had to start her life over at 40 after the divorce from my father. It didn’t really matter, because I had Oma. Even in her 70s, Oma could still do everything, including take care of four rambunctious kids. In her perfect brown slacks creased down the center and white blouse with pink polka dots, she would soothe our childish nerves. Opa would be there too, to keep us busy by constantly building us toys, taking us swimming, and playing games that only Opa could.
I must have been five when Opa created his version of a Slip’iN Slide. It was a pleasant surprise for us kids and all the neighbor children. The trash bag/tarp slide spanned half the large yard down the giant (even to adult standards) hill. The multiple sprinklers coated the plastic slide with enough water to drain the Erie Canal. After spending hours sliding down the hill something happened. I slammed my little tush down with a running start to get the best splash and speed. But, a quick pain started radiating from my left butt cheek.
Hot tears streamed down my face. I ran inside to Oma who was cooking us dinner in the Kitchen, making the already un-airconditioned house even hotter. Between the smells of potatoes and chicken she stood in her pink polka dots. All I could do was point to my butt. Which could really mean anything, as my Oma knew. Once I explained what happened, the pain, the disappointment that other kids could still slide down the hill drenched in water on the hot day, all the childhood drama a five-year-old could muster up – Oma turned me around. As her pet parakeets chirped away she started laughing hard. She pulled something off my butt cheek, immediately fixing the problem. She turned me around as I wiped my nose on her polka dot sleeve and said in a heavy German accent, “Evy, you sat on a bee. It stung your butt, silly girl.” Then back outside I ran, not missing any action. Oma stayed inside, prepping dinner with her pearl necklace dangling in the summer heat.
That polka dot blouse was something she wore throughout my childhood, rarely changing out of it into her other handmade clothing. After moving out of my grandparents’ house, we spent our summers there. We looked forward to Oma teaching us how to French braid, as well as to sweet treats like ginger candy, and melon for days. Even now, I wish my father hadn’t moved us all the way to Minnesota, at times. I wish I could be closer to my grandparents. But, I would never take back the fortune I have of being with my Minneapolis born husband.
I try to see my grandparents once a year. It’s gotten harder in the past few years as they have descended into dementia. This year I went out to see Oma over Memorial Day weekend. She was on a mission to clean out her closet of homemade clothing. We spent an afternoon going through her closet, I tried on her clothing, on blouse at a time. I learned that I’m the same size as my Oma. Each blouse fit perfectly to my curves, as if the pleats and darts were designed for me. They weren’t; she made them for herself. Then came the button-down white top with pink polka dots that Oma always wore. She gave it to me without a blink of the eye. The fabric was still thick, yet soft from use; the shoulder pads were square, the buttons plain white. The blouse, which was older than me, seemed to have held up just fine over time. I was happy to wear that beautiful button down home.
Oma struggles to remember who I am now. I call, and it takes a few minutes for her to figure out it is me, or she just calls me “honey.” I always love her and my memory isn’t of her now, it’s of all the times she wore that polka dot blouse. Some times when I’m longing for the safety and sweetness of childhood I’ll put on that homemade garment.