Today my Oma, that’s german for grandmother, turns 96 years old.
It doesn’t escape me that I have longevity in my genes and yet my daughter Jena couldn’t live to see her 14th birthday.
Growing old is not a gift given to all, that is painfully real to me.
But last week, I had the gift of spending a relaxing Sunday afternoon with my grandmother enjoying the stories she’d accrued since June 4, 1922.
Long before she was Oma Martha she was tomboy Martha, the youngest of three, born on a big farm in a small country town in upstate New York.
My Sunday afternoon spent with her flew by as we flipped through decades of photo albums and I listened to the stories that came to life with her words. As she studied each picture, her eyes lit up, her mind searched her memory, and her smile widened as she recalled the details. I watched as she seemed to be lost in time and I wondered what she must have been like as a child, a teenager, and a young mother. Sadly, I had never asked.
I did now.
I had asked what it was like living on a farm and how she met my grandfather. I asked what my father was like as a child. I stopped on memory, a black and white photo dated 1955. It was my grandparents, in their thirties. My grandfather held a six-pack of 7-Up soda in his left hand, a glass soda bottle in his right. This seemingly mundane moment was captured for me to find some 63 years later. I wondered what they were talking about. I wondered if 7-Up still tasted the same.
Every once in awhile my grandmother’s mind started to wander. She got confused, then frustrated as she tapped her finger repeatedly on a picture.
“I know this person, just can’t remember their name.” She’d look across the room at my father sitting in his chair, “Bill, come tell me who this is.” He’d know the picture well and reminded her again, “Mom, that’s Frank, Madge’s son.” She’d nod and give a sigh of relief of the memory restored. It was touching to see the patience and love between them; the 76-year-long mother and son bond truly unbreakable.
Knowing my opportunities of days like this would be limited, I continued seek any advice she could offer.
I reminded her that her 26 year old great-grandson, Downstate Eric she’d call him, had just celebrated his first wedding anniversary in May and I asked her what was her best advice I could relay to the newlyweds.
“No matter what, talk it out.” She said earnestly. “Always talk it out. And be truthful.”
I smiled, and started taking notes. I knew the wealth of wisdom that was about to be bestowed upon me.
I began my questions and asked her what was the best thing that ever happened in her life. She raised her eyebrows, and her eyes narrowed at me like it was the dumbest question I could have ever asked, “Well my husband and son, of course.” Her eyes fell as she sighed heavily recalling that she had buried her lifetime love, my grandfather, her Arch in June of 1999. My memory wandered as well recalling how Opa used to plop me on his shoulders when I was a little girl and I’d hug his neck so tightly as we trotted about town. I looked at my Oma and watched her dab her eyes with a tissue. “I miss Arch, you know.”
“I know Oma, I do too.”
Wanting to change the subject, I asked if she had any advice for me.
She smiled, seemed to be amused with my questions, and started to rattle off my true inheritance.
“What other words of wisdom can I share with you?” Looking across the room, she began, “Shut the light off and save a nickel. It’s probably more than that now.”
“Take a chance, visit friends, and do your best.”
“Don’t gossip,” she giggled at that. “Be decent, you know? Just take a chance and always help somebody out when you can.”
Good solid advice I thought. In 96 years, she had seen the Great Depression, black and white television turned into a OLED smart TV. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t understand how the internet works or even what it is, but she knows she can see pictures of her seven great-grandchildren on my iPhone. She’ll probably never read this blog, but maybe my future great grandchildren will, on some future contraption that I probably won’t understand.
It’s time for lunch and Sherry, my step-mom, makes a delicious meal of Oma’s favorite foods and I noticed my grandmother easily eats more than I do. We finish and she wants to walk back to her chair and finish her daily word search puzzle. I follow behind, watching her navigate the room slowly with her cane. She sits in her chair, finishes her word search, and looks over at me, her eyes now tired.
“You know, Margarete?” She leans in.
“I’ve been thinking about what you asked. You want to know what the best advice I can give you is?” She smiles.
“What’s that, Oma?”
She winks at me, her eyes show a hint of youthful sparkle, “Margarete, always get your hair done, it just makes you feel good.” I laugh, get up from my chair, and hug her tightly. I tell her how much I love her and she says how much she loves me too.
Soon her day is done and she wants to go to bed. I help her up and hug her a little longer this time. With my heart full, I say my goodbyes, get in my car, and pull out my iPhone.
“Siri, make a hair appointment for me on Tuesday.”