Today’s Throwback Thursday photo is from March 2005, taken in our hotel room in Florence, Italy as I got our daughter dressed for the day. My parents were with us from the States, and after breakfast, we continued our adventures by driving to Rome with a pit-stop in Orvieto for lunch.
Today’s #TBT photo is from November 2005 when my mother and her parents traveled from Texas for a visit to Cincinnati, where we were celebrating Thanksgiving. It was the first time my maternal grandmother Ninny met Miss C as we had just moved back to the United States from Italy a few months earlier. Miss C was two years old.
Today’s #TBT picture is from May 2005 just months before we left Europe for my next assignment in DC. That’s me giving a squeeze to Miss C and my niece NieNie when my brother-in-law and his family visited us in Italy. Those two are almost exactly one year apart.
They are now nearly teenagers.
I know what trouble they got into together as toddlers. Looking forward with excitement (and a little trepidation) at what trouble they’ll get into together in the coming years.
For Throwback Thursday, this is a picture from March 2005, taken in the hallway at our hotel in Florence, Italy. I remember it was the first time I put Miss C’s hair up in pigtails, so I took about 200 photos in that spot … not because I wanted to remember it so bad, but because she (being just a year old) refused to cooperate.
Okay, that’s sort of a lie. I’m sentimental all the time. But it will soon be eight years since we were all in Germany together. Specifically, it will be eight years since the last time we saw Oma, who passed away at the age of 99 in 2011. I was thinking of her the other day, and I can’t believe so much time has passed.
We last visited with her during our final trip to Germany from Italy, just weeks before I returned to the United States for my assignment at the Pentagon.
Miss C was just shy of her second birthday. Oma was living in a nursing home at the time, but we all still gathered in her room like old times, and enjoyed coffee and cake.
For today’s Flashback Friday, I’m sharing my blog post about that visit, first published in 2005.
I just got randomly stopped in the hallway here at work by a gentleman who asked, “Hey, you’re the Air Force veteran, right?” He then identified himself as a Navy vet — both active and reserve — and we had a GREAT conversation about being a veteran here in this department, some of the WTF comments non-vets have made not realizing they sound like assholes (ie: “We would have posted that job earlier, but only veterans would have applied…”), as well as comparing ways that the military mindset still creeps into our daily activities.
I was dumbfounded when he shared that, as was he when he heard it!Had I been that guy overhearing that, I swear to God I would have made my horrified-hangover face and asked if this was real life. He admitted that ever since then, he’s sort of kept his veteran status quiet, but was happy to realize there was another vet, and a bigger network of vets, here. Obviously, I’m pretty open about my background (and hopefully, not too obnoxious either), and I’m glad it’s resulted in an encounter like that.
It’s been eight years since we celebrated New Years in Europe.
Miss C was exactly Jaz’s age when we welcomed the New Year with Martin’s family in Germany. Oma was still alive then, and our Aunt Barbel was visiting from Italy as we all gathered at Christian’s home near Nuremberg.
Every Friday, I dip into my blog archives for a flashback into the past. For this Flashback Friday, the first of 2013, I’m sharing my post from New Years 2005.
When it was close to midnight, we all walked into the village center for fireworks and drank wine from plastic cups as the whole place filled up with smoke and enthusiastic Germans.
We knew 2005 was going to be one of change for us.
Just as we know 2013 is going to be an interesting year for us, too.
I drove along the beautiful Baltimore-Washington Parkway yesterday. When it’s the middle of the day and traffic is light, it’s a very enjoyable drive, especially this time of year.
This time of year always takes me back to Europe. Well, truth be told, it doesn’t take much for me to get me nostalgic for Europe — any part of Europe. The walls in my office at work are covered with the art we purchased in Italy.
The same goes for my walls at home.
Yet, there is something about all the autumn colors that draw me back to the colors we saw in Europe, especially those years we spent in Italy, when we traveled so often. Our lifestyle then allowed for it.
Pam and me in Munich in 2002. I was rocking the hoops, wasn’t I?
I first met Pamela twelve years ago.
We were both teenagers.
She was 18, from Berlin, and visiting her aunt who worked in the headquarters building on Ramstein Air Base. I was 19, from Cincinnati, and the newest Airman in the public affairs office.
We discovered the both of us had been high school foreign exchange students: she in New Mexico and me in Nuremberg.
And that was it.
Friends for life.
Every so often, I visited her in Berlin or Munich, where she was stationed with the German Air Force when she later joined as one of the first females EVER, becoming an officer.
Two years later, she was one of my bridesmaids in my wedding. And we’ve visited with each other over the years ever since. It’s one of those friendships that, despite the distance, feels so easy and natural, like we can pick up at any time and just keep talking, no matter how much time has passed. It’s been that way long before social media made it easier to keep in touch.
Early next week, I’m flying over to Germany to attend her wedding.
As much as Martin and I really want to take the family back to Germany all together, we want to make that an extended trip, especially for as much as it costs to fly everyone over there.
So, it’s just me this time.
It’s going to be a whirlwind, that’s for sure, but I’m so glad I’m going to be there to see Pam as a bride! I wouldn’t miss it.
That it takes place in Germany is pretty cool, too.
For my Flashback Friday post, I’m posting this entry I wrote when Miss C and I visited Pam in Hamburg in 2005.
“The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers & cities; but to know someone who thinks & feels with us, & who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.”
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
It was late at night Tuesday when Martin and I got a phone call from Germany.
Our beloved Oma — Martin’s maternal grandmother – passed away just a few minutes before.
It was not an unexpected phone call. A few days earlier, my brother-in-law Christian called us to let us know that Oma’s health had turned for the worst and they didn’t give her much time.
My mother-in-law Christel and her sister, our Tante Mali, were at Oma’s bedside the entire evening, making sure Oma was comfortable. According to Christel, Oma simply fell asleep and calmly breathed her last breaths in peace.
She was 99 years old.
The last time we saw Oma in person was in July 2005, during our last visit to Germany before our move back to the states. She was healthy then, her mind still sharp and full of wit and humor.
She was living in a one-room apartment in an assisted-living complex, and it was extremely hot that day. We had the windows and balcony door open, and she was wearing a loose summer dress. We filled a little tub of water on the balcony for Miss C, who wasn’t even two years old then, and my niece Nie-Nie to splash in. Pretty soon, the babies tore off their wet clothes and diapers, and were streaking through the room, laughing and trying to avoid our pinches.
It was during one of those moments that I took my most favorite picture of Oma, so relaxed and laughing. She loved babies.
It’s a bittersweet grief for Martin and me. Losing someone as loved as Oma is always sorrowful, especially on a date that we associate with such happiness and love. (We didn’t mention her passing here or on Facebook to give our family time to spread the word in person.) We always want more time.
Yet, how does one truly feel sad when the person we’re grieving lived such a long and full life?
In early 2001, Martin and I sat down with Oma and for five hours, I did nothing but interview her about her life. Martin translated where my German language skills fell flat, but for most of the conversation, it was me asking her questions and her sharing stories about her life as I frantically took notes and checked my voice recorder.
During our last visit with her, too, she pulled out her albums and let me copy and photograph her worn, aged photos and notes. I then used Photoshop to restore what I could, especially the photos of her childhood.
She was born in December 1911 in northwest Germany, the youngest of eight children. She was named Amalia. Her mother was pregnant the following year, but fell while hanging the laundry; she ended up miscarrying the child a few days later. (No doubt, this is why Martin was so hard on me about keeping off my feet this past weekend after my fall.)
When Oma was about two years old, her father was killed in a coal mining accident. As he and another man opened up a passageway, dangerous carbon monoxide overtook them. Oma had an older sister, called Kathe, who was like a little mother, and she had memories of Kathe caring for her.
Oma’s oldest brother was named Karl, and he was known throughout town as Schwartzer Karl, for his ebony black hair. He was known to be a bit of a good-natured troublemaker with his gang of friends, and whenever the town police came strolling down the street, the neighbors would always announce, “Oh, they’re coming for Schwartzer Karl!” even if that wasn’t necessarily the case. Karl was drafted in the military and sent to the front lines. He was killed in combat during World War I.
Now a widow with so many children, little income and with a war going on, Oma’s mother had little choice, but to separate her children and send them out to relatives and families living in the countryside, away from cities and factories that were war targets, where food was more readily available.
Oma was a bit older at this point, and remembered being sent to live with a wealthy family who had one daughter her age. She remembered a big house with a big yard, and in that house, there was a room totally devoted to the daughter’s doll collection. There were strict instructions that nobody could play with the dolls, though. So Oma and the girl spent most of their time outside, collecting frogs and trying to keep out of trouble. She stayed with the family for the remainder of the war.
Her experience a few decades later during World War II were much different.
She had gone to school and worked during her 20s and had no time for marriage. And she sang in a choir, which she continued to do for years.
But then she met our Opa, Josef. He was an electrician who worked for the Siemens company. They announced their engagement Christmas Eve 1939, surrounded by their friends and family. The wedding was a big event. She married Josef in 1940, wearing a dress she made out of curtains. They were both older than what was typical – she was 29, he was in his 30s.
Oma gave birth to her first child just over a year later, to Tante Mali. At some point, as World War II escalated, his job required them to move. He worked in Berlin during the week while Oma and Mali lived on the outskirts of town, in a suburb where it was much quieter and not a war target. Two more children were born: our Tante Barbel and Onkel Peter.
Martin and I have heard many stories about Oma’s war experiences, and during the interview with her, she repeated some of them, although others I heard from our aunts. Some are based on their own faint childhood memories of the war: other stories are what they heard from her or others. As the war stretched on, things became harder for her. Her husband was unable to come home as frequently as before. During the last few years of it, when it became obvious more men were needed on the fronts, teenagers and older men were recruited, including Opa. He was sent to France.
During my interview with her, I asked her about what it was like to be a mother during the war. As we looked through the photos her husband took from the front lines, I was struck by how similar they were to the World War II photos my grandfather brought home: men shaving, lined up and hamming for the camera, eating their rations and enjoying lighthearted moments.
But of course, that era was anything but lighthearted.
Oma was left behind with three young children in a deteriorating situation near Berlin. With her husband gone, Oma took in work as a seamstress, sewing badges and altering uniforms for the German military.
The two war stories that stick out the most was about the time when Oma was stopped by Russian soldiers as they brandished their weapons and demanded information from her.
And the other happened toward the end of the war, when things were really bleak. Oma ended up stealing potatoes from a neighbor’s garden to bring home for her children.
As a devout Catholic, this act – which was no doubt spurred by a mother’s desperate need to feed her family – weighed heavily on her, and it was the story she always told when asked, “Oma, what do you remember about the war?”
During my interview with her, I asked Oma what it was like to have a grandson paired up with an American woman, if she could have ever imaged such a thing for her offspring back then when the two countries were such at odds.
Her answer echoed what my grandfather Charley always said about his World War II experiences (which included a stint in England as part of the Army Air Corps.) Before he left, his own grandfather sat him down and said, “Never forget that the Germans are people, too.” For Oma, there was never any animosity against Americans, and she spoke of how American soldiers were the ones to provide food and rations for her family. At her 90th birthday party, she and her friends recalled the candy the American soldiers passed out, too.
She was amazed by how much could change in the world in what seemed to her such little time.
The whole family, even Opa, survived the war. And life settled down for them in the 1950s as they moved to Erlangen, Germany, where Opa continued working for Siemens. Martin’s mother was born there; a later-in-life surprise for all of them.
Oma raised her children, sang in a choir, attended church regularly and worked at the German Red Cross, where she made many friends who continued to visit with her well into their 90s. Opa passed away sometime in the 1960s, but Oma continued to live an active life.
Tante Mali became a nun and Tante Barbel married an Italian man and raised several children of her own on the island of Sicily. Onkel Peter grew up to be a butcher and married our Tante Herta.
And of course, there was Christel, Martin’s mother, who grew up and married Martin’s father and worked in a bakery while raising Martin and his siblings.
Oma adored her grandchildren and traveled all over Europe to be with them during their first communions and weddings. She took many vacations, often accompanying her children’s families wherever they went. She spent a lot of her summers on the beach in Italy.
The first thing Martin did during my second visit to him in Germany in 1999 was take me to his Oma’s house, where we decorated her Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas tree). It was the first time she met me, and she liked me right away.
When I was stationed in Germany a year later, and drove the three hours to Erlangen to visit Martin nearly every weekend, Sunday always meant a visit to Oma’s for coffee and cake. It also meant that every time we drove away from her apartment, she stood on the balcony to wave goodbye. She did this every single time for every single visit.
One of my most favorite personal memories of Oma happened at a beer festival. Martin and I weren’t married yet. We agreed to meet up with Oma and Tante Mali in one of the big tents, which are filled with tables for people to sit and drink beer and eat bratwurst while listening to loud polka music. While it was crowded, Martin and Tante Mali were texting each other on their cell phones and she directed us to a corner table.
But when we got to the corner, we just saw a large group of young men still in their rugby uniforms, sitting in a huge circle.
Where was Mali and Oma?
We walked all over that tent, checking every corner, but we could not find them. Martin sent another text. The reponse: We are in THAT corner!
So we walked back to the rugby guys and pushed our way through the bodies to the table. And there, sitting in the middle of that group, laughing and flirting with the raucous men were Oma and Mali, both wearing huge smiles and Oma gripping a large stein of cold brew. She was 90+ years old, and still working it! The young men welcomed us, telling us how awesome and funny our Oma was to them.
With Oma’s passing, a huge chunk of family history goes with her, an entire century of life experiences! I am so thankful for the photos, stories and memories I do have of her, and while I regret that Miss C has no memory of her, and that Lola never got to meet her, they will know of her.
And I hope for all us to follow in her footsteps and live long, full lives. Her journey was not easy, but she never lost her sense of humor, her kindness and warmth to others. I know I will never forget her.