On Tuesday October 28th my grandmother deceased. This is the story I recited at her funeral. A story about love, garlic, falling and ‘being there’. And in the epilogue the ladybugs take things over…
Being the eldest granddaughter, I was able to have the pleasure of Oma’s company for a long time. My mother gave birth to me at the young age of 21, so Corrie became a grandmother quite early in life. As you can imagine, we went through a lot together.
Thinking of Oma, I’m reminded of the past, of the time we were still living in Boxtel. The house of my grandmother and grandfather was close to the primary school my sister Maartje and I attended, and at lunchtime we would often stop by at Oma’s. Sometimes she would send us out to buy some fried fish. Once Maartje and I had finished arguing about who was to go and get it, and the three of us were sat at the big round table, each of us with a tasty fillet of fish in front of us, everything was just fine.
Except for that one occasion when we were so wrapped up in playing with all the buttons, the playing cards, and the skipping rope in the garden, that Oma completely lost all track of time. We were way too late for school of course, but I don’t think either of us were too bothered. We had a very good excuse after all: Oma had forgotten the time…
Years later, as a present for successfully passing my school exams, I was allowed to go on holiday to Austria with Opa and Oma. As soon as we arrived at our destination in the beloved Vorarlberg, the first thing they did was open the trunk, and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the amount of food they’d managed to pack. Countless tins of soup and beans, potatoes, coffee and toilet paper… It would have fed an army. And we wouldn’t have to worry at all about making a mistake in the local Austrian supermarket by buying something we didn’t like.
During the day we would go for invigorating walks in the fresh mountain air, revel in Johannesberensaft and apfelstrudel and greet the other hikers with Gruss Gott. In the evening we played cards fanatically. It was fantastic. I’m eternally grateful to my grandparents for sharing with me their love of the mountains and hiking.
After Opa died, I went to Australia twice with Oma, to visit her daughter Corrie and her husband Graham, and their children Sarah and David.
I will never forget the occasion I was sitting in the plane with Oma – we were flying Singapore Airlines I believe – and that I’d gone to the toilet to freshen up. When I got back, Oma was deeply engrossed in a conversation with two attractive-looking stewardesses. The three of them were poring over a small piece of paper, containing an ingeniously designed but totally incomprehensible set of drawings, which when viewed from a distance bore some resemblance to the prehistoric cave paintings of Lasceaux. It turned out that the two ladies in question had been attempting to make clear to Oma with their sketches the exact ingredients and choices available for the evening meal – after Oma had replied to their question of what she would like to eat by resolutely repeating the mantra ‘No knoflook! No knoflook!’.
Of course the stewardesses didn’t have the faintest idea what the word knoflook (garlic) meant, but had come up with the idea that by drawing what the evening meal consisted of – a chicken, a pig – they’d be able to get the message across. Even with my five years of art school, I couldn’t make head or tail of what the ladies had drawn, but luckily I arrived just in time to be able to smooth out any misunderstandings. Shortly afterwards, I spied several stewardesses giggling to each other behind the half-closed curtains at the back of the plane, staring at a little scrap of paper…
Up to the very last, Oma never lost her ability to make you laugh – although her humor did take a turn for the bitter sweet and was even downright black. She said exactly what she thought. She knew what she wanted and didn’t beat about the bush.
A few weeks ago, when my partner and myself were visiting Oma in hospital, she told us that a nurse had been at her bedside earlier that day. ‘So madam, how are you doing? We’ll be back soon to get you dressed nicely, your visitors will like that,’ the young girl had informed her cheerily and with enthusiasm. ‘Get me dressed? Get me dressed?’, said Oma indignantly. ‘Who for? No way that’s going to happen, I can tell you! I’m not going to get dressed any more in this life!’ And that was that. The nurse was quick to get the message: you don’t mess with this 93 year-old.
Oma also made it clear to everyone that she was ready to exchange her earthly existence for the eternal one. She was in pain, all she did was lie in bed, she was worn out. ‘Every day that I’m dead is a bonus’, she told us. We couldn’t help but burst out laughing at this because it sounds like a slogan you’d find on refrigerator magnets, but one where the insight is in shrill contrast to popular sentiment.
Five days before Oma had the fall which led to her hospital admission, I was writing a poem, and I suddenly realized that this was what I would recite on her remembrance day. Tears came to my eyes and I continued writing.
I told all this to Oma, later in the hospital, and asked her if she wanted me to read it out loud for her. She said she’d like that very much; she was naturally very curious to hear what people would say about her at her funeral, and this way she was able to get some idea. This is what I read out loud for her:
The Great Fall
You ask me to hold your hand. Of course. Your skin feels soft, like a baby’s, but elsewhere like parchment, written on with a pen full of memories. Sometimes black as soot, as in your lower back where the shadow grew, uncontrollable. But light-hearted and loving too, around your heart, where Grandpa wrote his poems in thoughts. A classic love, life-long, unyielding and familiar.
Transparent is your skin, too big and full of bruises from falls and collisions. And we both know: the Great Fall is close at hand, in the arms of God. Just have faith Grandma, just let go.
And then it arrives, the exit, the tears and the regret. About all that could have been different, has been and remained unsaid. Your house cleared out within a month, fond memories divided and the rest disposed of. No one will sleep in your bed anymore, no one will wipe their mouth with the cloth that lay under your 10 am cup of broth. Your existence added to the Codex of Oblivion.
But we know better Grandma, when the Great Fall comes, into the arms of God. Just have faith, let go. Leave all your worries behind you, for they are part of this earthly existence. Let go of your responsibilities, you have done enough. Open yourself up to the light and allow yourself to once again be embraced by the heart of love written of by my grandfather.
There are two things I will always remember about Oma’s wisdom during those last few days. When she was already quite weak, I asked her what I could do for her. ‘Being there’, she said.
I also asked her what had been the most important thing in her life, looking back – the most essential thing. ‘Love’, she said.
A few days before she died, I spent the night with Oma in the hospital. I was overcome by an intense feeling of gratitude, peace, light and love. Which is what I wish for all of you here today. And to think of Oma’s words when you are going through a difficult period full of tears and pain. Find consolation and support in Love and in ‘being there’.
Gruss Gott, dearest Oma. I will miss you.
I recited this story yesterday during the funeral. That morning a good friend of granny saw, after getting up, three ladybugs on the windowsill. Also, in the church we were surprised by what seemed like a ladybug infestation. They were everywhere. One in front of us, who crawled to a spot high on the pew, to see everything first. Thereafter, there were more. On hands and shoulders, chic blouses, thick winter coats, sometimes a neck, cheerfully fluttering through the chilly house of God. In all colors, shapes and sizes, black, light brown, pink red, often with many dots. When I took off my glasses to see what that dark spot was that was sitting on the glass … yes, there was another one. It was also noticed by others. As a merry flock they went by the church.
Later I heard from some people that the question of how grandma after her passing would make herself known, if there is something after death, my grandmother had said: pay attention to the ladybugs. Very special indeed, this ladybug infestation on an autumnal day in November, during a funeral service in a chapel with closed doors …:-)
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