I recently took an online women’s writing course and each week we were prompted to write about something. The teacher would give a lecture about writing and how we might access memories about the topic. When we were prompted to write about our grandmothers’ arms, each woman who shared told the story of their grandmothers’ fat, doughy arms. They remembered as children being held tightly by this matron and how the house smelled like cinnamon cookies. My story could not have been further from my southern and Midwestern classmates’ stories and it made me laugh. Their grandmas were Paula Dean and mine definitely was not.
My paternal grandmother carried herself elegantly. She had long, skinny arms and legs and I would guess that she was close to 6 feet at her tallest. Though I visited her in Germany and she visited us in the states several times throughout my childhood, I got to know her best when I lived in Germany for one year when I was 20. She lived in a small town not too far from Hamburg with her eldest daughter, Minnie, in the house which stood directly across the street from the home where she raised her children. She could still walk well when she was 89 and went about town with a cane for short outings. She knew a lot of people and was quite friendly.
She had stylish and long camel trench coats and wore flat shoes. My most familiar memory of her is that she was always wearing one of these coats as it rains something like 280 days a year in this region. She had a terrific sense of humor and was liked by everyone she knew. She was always nice to me.
One of the funniest things I ever heard about her occurred when she was staying at my aunt’s (Tante Christiane’s) dairy farm in British Columbia, Canada for a whole summer. She was a bit of a princess so in order for her to come visit for so long, my aunt had built her small guesthouse. She slept late in the morning, until 11 or so, and always missed breakfast with the family. One day everyone had gone out and she walked over to the main house to get herself something to eat. Later, everyone asked what she had eaten for breakfast and she told them she had liverwurst. There was no liverwurst in the house. It turned out she ate canned dog food. She claims it tasted perfectly fine and didn’t mind that she had eaten it. We grandkids howled about that!
The year I lived in Germany, I stayed primarily with my other aunt, Tante Nono, clear across the other side of Hamburg, in Blankenese, a beautiful hillside community directly on the Elbe river. Nono frequently took the S-Bahn about one hour journey each way to have tea with my grandmother, whom we called Murr, but her given name is Helene (my middle name) and then my Tante Minnie would go out for a few hours and do some shopping. For a number of weeks in the summer, I stayed out in Wohltorf with them and I got to have tea with Murr and Nono. My grandmother always got some orange schnapps down from the cabinet and we partook. Tante Nono, otherwise a non-smoker, had one cigarette during tea as well.
While I was staying in Wohltorf, we got invited to a fancy garden party nearby. The three of us attended and we remarked that we were 3 generations of Woermann women: my 89 year-old grandmother, my 56 year-old aunt and I. The party was hosted by the owners of a prominent German magazine at a gorgeous, stately home and the sun was out for a change. My grandmother introduced me to our hosts and told them that I was the daughter of her son Konrad, “the failure, the one who went to America.” She was always hard on my father, who had left Germany in the 50s to seek his fortune. She died before he went out on his own and had a successful sailboat import business.
My German was never great, but it got pretty good during that summer when all of the oldsters were chatting me up and refusing to speak to me in English. I heard it all: the war, the losses, the bombs, the hunger, the sadness, four families under one roof, eating rotten potatoes. Nono told me my father almost got arrested when he found a turnip on the ground and was accused of stealing. He was 13 years old.
My grandmother died the following spring, shortly after her 90th birthday. I was so grateful to have gotten to know her.