I remember the first time I said a full sentence to her in the language she could understand.
Ich lade Euch herzlich ein, inviting my mother-in-law and wife to lunch, rolling my tongue seven times in my mouth to make sure I got it right the first time.
It was summer, 1997 and we’d just moved to Germany, still waiting for the shipping container to pass the Suez Canal.
Oma went on a lot of our trips back then. She’d take care of the little red-haired girl while we went off to the sand dunes, or cook up for breakfast when we were still flaked out from overnight duty.
She had a long life.
Born when the First World War was still in its dying months, she became a young wife in the middle of the next, marrying a soldier on home from leave who left for the Russian campaign a week later.
Pushed out of her home in the East by the threat of advancing Russian forces, she carried her first daughter in the middle of winter over streams and borders to arrive in the west and give birth in the dying days of World War II nine months later.
Her soldier husband had no idea of her ordeal, nor did she of what had happened to him. Nursing a baby girl to her first steps unable to know whether her love still saw the sunrise, flung between the limits of hope and despair without a word one way or another.
Until one day nearly a year-and-a-half later she opened an envelope from the Red Cross, knowing it was either from or about him, afraid to discover what was inside before reading in scratchy script:
My dear wife and daughter,
I now have the great pleasure to give you a sign of life. I can tell you that I am doing well and am still healthy, and hope you are too. I wish you all the best and send my most heartfelt greetings. Yours ever,
It took still another year and a half for him to finally return from a prisoner of war camp on the Caspian Sea near Baku, in present-day Azerbaijan. She said he’d become a brute in his years of fighting and imprisonment, couldn’t remember at first how to conduct himself in company or at table.
If, from then on, she led a quiet life in the countryside as a wife and mother, it must have been to make up for the way it began.
Her second daughter, my wife, came along a few years later. At the time they were living with two other families in a house you’d swear wouldn’t fit a childless couple. But her husband was a carpenter and builder, and they moved 51 years ago into the new house she lived until suffering a stroke and, two days later, passing away the day before Christmas.
Still on my way by train, I was told to take a taxi at the station and go straight to the hospital because there was no time for them to leave her bedside.
Arriving at the hospital I walked up the stairs to the first floor and opened the door to room 201. She lay peacefully, a red rose placed below her folded hands. The whole family was there. I said little, but did what I could to console them one by one.
In this way it was a Christmas like no other for us. The funeral was held on my wife’s birthday, Christmas dinner – for the first time, just the three of us – on New Year’s Eve.
It’s a time for looking back and looking ahead.
I was chatting the other day with an old friend from Montreal. She said we’re all at that age when our parents are getting old and dying.
She said: I don’t want to get old.
Nor do I, I said. But I don’t much like the alternative, either.