1918 – 2011

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.

20 Responses to “1918 – 2011”

  1. 1 hmunro
    January 4, 2012 at 11:07 pm

    What a beautiful, heartfelt tribute, Ian. And what an eloquent reminder of strength and perseverance of the human spirit. My heartfelt condolences to you and your family.

  2. January 5, 2012 at 12:39 am

    Wow. Lovely story. I’d love to have met her. May she finally rest in peace, in even more peace than she had on her bike in the countryside.

  3. January 5, 2012 at 6:26 am

    My condolences for your family’s loss.

    Thank you for sharing and for writing such an eloquent and nice piece.

  4. January 5, 2012 at 9:36 am

    Beautifully written tribute. Very sorry for your family’s loss.

  5. January 5, 2012 at 6:00 pm

    What a beautiful dedication to Oma. I’m sorry for your family’s loss.

  6. January 5, 2012 at 7:15 pm

    Such a moving and heartfelt memorial. My deepest sympathy on your loss. Wishing you strength in the days to come.

  7. January 5, 2012 at 9:20 pm

    Ian, I’m so sorry. You and your family have my heartfelt condolences.

    I can’t help but notice – the dates bracketing your Oma’s life are the same as my mother’s. 1918 – 2011. Their lives were quite different, but it makes me happy to imagine that, just perhaps, my own mother’s work as a riveter in an aircraft factory during WWII might in some small way have contributed to Oma receiving her love back at the end of the war.

    Wishing you every blessing as you move forward.

  8. January 6, 2012 at 4:48 am


    Sending my condolences from Calgary, Alberta. Heartfelt thanks for sharing your moving tribute to Oma. It’s my sincere wish that the new year would bring strength and peace to all in your family.

  9. January 6, 2012 at 5:54 am

    This must hard on your wife. My condolences.

    That’s a wonderful photo of your mother-in-law (have I got this right?) on the bicycle. How old was she?

    My partner just told me his stepfather who was conscripted from Germany into WW II, escaped by bicycle (!) when he was in Russia during the war.

    His mother lived a better life in Canada after 1953 when they immigrated. She died peacefully at 93. The wonderful tributes to German pastries in my blog is my memory of her best skills and what she gave to others.

    • January 6, 2012 at 5:06 pm

      Once again, thanks very much to all.

      Jean, in that photo Oma is about 82. She had a fall a couple of years later, breaking her hip which required surgery for replacement. Her cycling days were over.

  10. 12 G
    January 7, 2012 at 10:16 am

    What a lovely story and my condolences to your wife and you and your family.

    I think about this mortality, as an expat, all the time. What a great run, at 93. But it must always feel too fast- certainly my Nana’s 83 years did not feel anywhere near long enough. My grandfather died on NY’s, my aunt on Thanksgiving- my friend on my brother’s birthday. It’s a bittersweet feeling, these overlapping sorrows and joys, and there are more and more as we grow older.

  11. January 7, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Ian, truly a loving tribute to a stalwart woman. My MIL passed a year ago and when someone is so much a part of your daily life, the hole left by that loss can be enormous. My sincerest condolences to your wife and your family.

  12. January 7, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    Your wife and daughter must be devastated. Sympathies to them both, and to you.

  13. January 7, 2012 at 5:06 pm

    What a heartfelt and loving tribute. I am so sorry that you’ve lost someone so close.

  14. January 8, 2012 at 5:52 am

    Vale Oma. May this New Year bring peace to your little family xx

  15. January 10, 2012 at 2:27 am

    Hi Ian,
    This was a moving tribute that I read a couple of days ago. My mother passed on just before Christmas and, like yours, this way it was a Christmas like no other for us too.

  16. January 14, 2012 at 1:12 am

    Thanks for sharing this family story. I don’t think anyone could have written it better. Such a strong generation. We will miss their endurance and wisdom. Peace in the new year.

  17. January 17, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    Beautiful tribute to Oma. I’m sorry for your loss but it’s also heart-warming to read about her life.

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