My fondest memories are those of my strong-willed and feisty maternal grandmother. Looking for a better life for her remaining family, my widowed grandmother came to America in the fall of 1951 from what was then the country of Yugoslavia. She had lost both her husband and her eldest son to the horrors of war and its aftermath. Adding insult to injury, my grandmother and her children were thrown into concentration camp for 33 months back in November of 1944. Fortunately they were finally able to escape in 1947, fleeing to Austria, where they remained for four years before being able to come to America. After 15 days in New York, they travelled to and set up their new home in Chicago where they already had family settled.
A deeply religious woman, my Oma, German for grandmother, attended daily mass. As her children got older and moved on,( getting married and began families of their own), Oma spent her free time sewing clothes for her growing brood of grandchildren, and, during the seventies, sewed toys for underprivileged children.
With her giving and caring nature, Oma was hardly without something to busy her hands with, be it knitting, crocheting, or baking sweets for her beloved grandchildren. Our family’s weekly visit to her third-floor walk-up in Northwest Chicago was always a highlight of my week as a child. She usually made my favorite: a jelly filled biscuit-type confection drizzled with melted sugar. But then something went wrong.
It was in the early-80’s that I remember the cancer dominating my Oma’s life. Diagnosed with ovarian cancer, her descent towards death was unbearable to watch. In the early-stages, my mother and her three sisters dutifully took care of my Oma at her home; bathing her, feeding her, applying salve to her bedsores. Her only remaining son lived in Germany and was unable to help his sisters. My Oma faced this new obstacle with the same determination and quiet strength that was so clearly defined within her. Bravely, she coped with the chemotherapy, and the strong narcotics that caused her to be wrapped inside a fog. Eventually she didn’t know whether it was day or night, confused to what time of day, or night, that it was.
When it was mother’s turn to take care of Oma, my dad and I would spend the night there if it was a weekend. I remember her cries doing the night; long, sorrowful moans that broke our hearts. As she continued to deteriorate, that fierce independent flame that once danced in her eyes was now barely a flicker. She begged her daughters to leave knives nearby so she could take her own life, but of course they wouldn’t hear of such things, ridding the home of any sharp objects.
After some time, my mother and her sisters were no longer able to care for my Oma and they had decided to put her in a Chicago hospice. The physical and emotional exhaustion was beginning to take its toll on them. Every movement for my Oma became a slice of hell for her. I have the last family portrait with my Oma in it. You could see the ravages of the disease clearly etched on her; puckered face and sunken eyes. The drugs that were feeding her blessed relief from the pain caused her to blur faces and names together. In the last week of June, my cousin Peter from Germany came to say goodbye to Oma. All Oma could do was hold his hands in her nearly lifeless ones, repeating his name over and over. This would be her final connection to her beloved son.
On July 6, 1981, the final page of her life here on earth was written. With her second-eldest daughter, Hilda, at her bedside, my Oma smiled blissfully through a medicated fog, as though greeting an unseen visitor, then peacefully closed her eyes and died. There would be no more pain. No more struggle. Finally, at peace. Goodbye, Oma.