Yesterday, my husband and I drove to the gym to participate in cycle class, one of the things that has kept us partially sane during the past three years. Mike parked the car and I got out and saw something that immediately sent me back to my youth. It was a bush, or rather a series of bushes, planted in the rows between the parking spots. I don't know the names of these bushes, but I have enjoyed them many times before. They are green and leafy, and this time of the year they sport the most delicate tiny pink blossoms, each blossom no more than a quarter of an inch in diameter. These delicate blossoms are surrounded by little leaf-like sprouts that give the small blossoms a star-like quality. I used to pick those blossoms in my grandmother, my Oma's, backyard.
Oma, had a beautiful flower garden behind her small ranch-style home. She did all of the planting and weeding herself. She and my step-grandfather, who we called "Uncle Sam," built a concrete patio and surrounded it with a short brick wall. They placed pots of petunia on the wall. But, the flowers that I loved were the lilies of the valley planted on the side of the house. These flowers were so delicate. They were simple, a stalk curved like a candy cane with random tiny white blossoms that looked like bells all up and down the stalk. They were small, and unique, and perfect.
Oma had not been born to be a gardener. At that time she was a seamstress, a member of the Ladies' Garment Workers Union. She sewed sleeves onto coats. That wasn't her first job in the United States. When she first arrived with my six year old mother, my grandfather, and my great-grandmother in tow, she worked as a maid. I remember her telling me about the first time she made gelatin and it was not hardening so she added cornstarch. By the time the gelatin had set, she could have fashioned that jell-o into bricks.
It took me many years to realize that Oma was my real-life hero. She forced her family to escape Nazi Germany at the end of 1938, right before Kristallnacht. Many other relatives perished in concentration camps.
Oma learned English before she left to aid in our family's assimilation. She, as many Germans are prone to do, worked hard. She worked very hard. Oma sewed matching dresses for my sister and I. She was always busy.
Every summer, Oma and Uncle Sam took my sister, my brother and me to the Lake of the Ozarks. I remembered how exquisitely excited I would get each and every time I first laid eyes on the water of the lake. We swam and fished and had a grand old time. Those are the only out-of-town vacations we had when I was a child. Uncle Sam took me fishing in Loose Park, the place which was ultimately the site of my wedding many years later. There was a time that fishing was allowed in the urban park with the lake by Wornall, a pretty heavily traveled thoroughfare. I (Uncle Sam, really) caught a catfish from the pond when I was seven. We took it home to Oma' house and put it in a tub. Of course it died, since the water was filled with chlorine, but we knew nothing about the chlorine hazard and watched the fish swim until its untimely demise.
I learned a lot from Oma and Uncle Sam. When Uncle Sam died from lung cancer (damn you cigarettes) Oma was devastated. She loved that man more than she loved life itself. She grieved, but she knew that her life must go on and what she made of the rest of it lay in her hands. At age 63, my grandmother went back to school, to become an L.P.N. Oma had secretly wanted to be a nurse her whole life. She was the oldest student in the class, but I am sure no student studied harder than she. She passed the classes and aced the test and was hired by a local hospital. Oma was working on the floor of Research Hospital when Harry Truman was brought to that hospital to die. Nursing was Oma's passion, but the hospital had a rule that nurses could not be over 70 years old. At 70, Oma had to leave. She worked at some part-time nursing jobs, but it wasn't the same for her as working in a hospital. Within a few years, she died.
I think of this amazing woman often. She called me Lynnilla and used similar suffices for my siblings. She was steady and safe and always there for us. I remember the sun streaming into her living room through the picture window with the eastern exposure, making everything glow a hopeful yellow color. When you saw that sunlight and were bathed in its warmth at Oma's house, the day was going to be okay.
Oma was, and still is, my hero. I hope everyone is fortunate enough to have a person in his or her life who inspires them to be their best. Oma did that for me.
Everytime I see one of those bushes with the exquisitely tiny pink flower/stars, or I find a delicate lily of the family, I think of my grandmother and home.