Having dinner with my Oma

I don’t do it often enough, but tonight I’m going to be preparing a German meal using long time family recipes that my Oma carried with her to America as a young war bride. It has been many years since I’ve attempted this kind of a meal since Sam’s not that keen on German cuisine, but I happen to love it. Dinner will be simple but tasty, I’m sure.

We’ll be dining on brökel bönne, which is a traditional and scrumptious soup made primarily from sausage, bacon, and green beans that have been hand-picked from my very own garden. We will also be having my absolute favorite German dish ever- rohe Klöße, which is a rustic style potato dumpling served with a rich beef gravy. All simple peasant food I assure you, but most hearty and delicious. For dessert we’re going light and flavorful with Oma’s Spritz cookies. These happen to be in my top 5 favorite cookies of all time.

I remember as a child eating batch after batch of them at Christmastime. Oma always had a never ending supply of homemade cookies in her pantry, and she was always more than willing to share her bounty with whoever may stop in for a visit. Everything from hazelnut stars to anise drops and peffernuts. She used to make these amazing cookies I always called the ‘rice paper cookies’. They have this awesome rice paper wafer stuck to the back of them – I found the wafers at Harry’s, now I just have to find the recipe…I’m hoping one of my aunts can help me out in that department.

My Oma was a sweet little German woman with a rounded face, twinkling green eyes, and a warm smile. Even though she lived in the States for nearly 50 years she refused to give up her German accent, and she never forgot her heritage. She was proud to share a taste of her homeland with anyone who was interested. I feel lucky in the sense that I have a little piece of her in me. Every morning when I look in the mirror I see some of her staring back at me. We both have rounded and rosy cheeks, we’re both short and chubby, we both have green eyes, and naturally curly brown hair. I only hope I age as gracefully and as beautifully as she did.

I remember walking into her tidy little cottage as a child and immediately seeing her perched at her dining room table with a steaming cup of coffee, a crossword puzzle, and her cigarette case close at hand. She’d look up from the puzzle book and a huge smile would cross her face. She’d hop up, give me a warm hug and kiss on the cheek, and then proceed to try and feed me! She could cook like nobody’s business, and she always had some delightful goodie tucked away in a cupboard. She was one of the most gracious hostess’ I’ve ever know, and she believed that good food could put anyone at ease and bring people together. She showed her family how much she loved them through her cooking, and that’s a philosophy I’ve adopted as my own today.

I was in my first semester in college, living in Oklahoma, when I got the call that Oma was very sick. Naturally, I immediately rushed back to Kansas with my mother and youngest brother. It had been several years since I’d seen Oma, and in truth I didn’t recognize the frail little woman that met us in that hospital room. The warm fall sunshine poured through the window eerily illuminating the translucent skin that covered her thin hands and arms, her sunken eyes closed in death’s peaceful slumber. Her breathing was so shallow I wasn’t even sure she was alive.

At one point during that day I found myself alone with her. I searched every feature on the ancient woman’s face, desperately seeking out a recognizable trace of my Oma. This tiny little woman in front of me was a mere shell of her former self. She’d shriveled down to near nothingness. Her cotton white hair was unkempt and matted to her head, her hand and arms were skeletal in every way and as transparent as the finest porcelain china. Every line, every wrinkle, every curve seemed foreign to me – surely this couldn’t be the Oma I’d known and loved all my life. And in those moments, I realized I was scared. I was staring in to the face of death – the face of cancer, and I hated what I was seeing. I wanted to run. Run as far away from that sterile hospital room as I could. But at the same time my legs were concrete as I was moved by compassion for her.

As gently as I could, I slowly slid my hand under hers – it was icy cold like death, and I fought the urge to withdraw my own warm hand. I knew that she didn’t have much time left on this earth, so if there was something to say it needed to be said in those precious moments. We were alone in the room, and yet I felt very self-conscious and unsure of what I was supposed to say as tears burned at the corners of my eyes.

“Oma??…….It’s Brittan……..do you remember me????” I felt foolish introducing myself like a stranger, and I mentally kicked myself for allowing as much dead air space to pass between us over the years. After listening to my family talk amongst themselves about how much Oma’s condition had deteriorated over the past few months I was sure she couldn’t hear me or understand what I was saying to her anyway. I stared at the medical gadgets attached to the wall over her bed, silently contemplating what I was going to say next as a solitary tear traced its way down my cheek and dripped onto the bed. And suddenly the icepack in my hand gave a gentle squeeze. My gaze shot to her face and her eyes were half opened. This frail old woman was looking at me, and I was staring into pale green eyes. Oma’s green eyes; the eyes I remembered from my childhood, although the twinkling lights and mischief that used to reside there had obviously been evicted by cancer. And for a moment, no, maybe just half a moment I saw my Oma…and she saw me. Her eyes closed as quickly as they had opened, and I never saw them again.

It has been 14 years since cancer stole my beautiful Oma away. And I believe I miss her as much today as I ever have. Thankfully, those cherished memories will live on in our hearts, and through our stomachs.


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