Originally published October 2013
My summer ended in southern Germany around the Lake of Constance, driving through tiny old German villages separated by only a few kilometers of apple trees and vineyards. It sounds peaceful, but add in a little 84 year old German lady with a big to-do list and what it actually was was busy, exhausting, and incredibly special.
“But Oma, what did he first say to you?”
She’s sitting at the kitchen table in our little apartment; one of many in what used to be an old farm house. I’m sitting up in bed typing a note on my iPhone and wishing I had brought my laptop. I know I should let the old lady go to sleep, but after another long day I have so many questions. The busy days that my Oma planned gave me a tiny snapshot of the life they had before they were the grandparents that I knew.
We arrived in Germany Tuesday afternoon and by Wednesday afternoon it felt like I had already seen a weeks worth of history, met a handful of old ladies whose relation to me was too hard to keep track of, and eaten more bread than I normally eat in a week. On Wednesday afternoon Uncle Pete, Oma, her old friend Marelene & I went to Meersburg. This is what I had been waiting for. A few Christmas Eve’s ago Oma had told me how she met my Opa. Now I was getting to set foot on the very same pier, sit on the same bench, and stand outside the restaurant of their first date. And Marelene happens to be the friend who sneakily set up their meeting. Meersburg is beautiful enough on its own. You can see Switzerland on the horizon. There are ships and ferries taking people back and forth across the lake that shimmers the way Shuswap does in the sun. There’s an old castle on the hill above us, and palm trees scattered along the cobblestone sidewalks. I can only imagine how nervous and cute my Oma would have been 60 years ago, standing there waiting for him.
The Christmas she told me the story was quiet and small; we all fit around one table. I was in my early twenties and it was the first time I didn’t have to sit at the kids table. What I’ll remember most about that year is driving my grandma home. It was around 8:30pm; she goes to bed early, even on Christmas Eve. The roads were wet but clear, the sky was a blueish black and the city lights were sparkling. I had never asked her how she met my Opa. The story she told me in her little German accent made me think that not so much has changed.
The war was over and she was a little older than I am now. One of her best friends, unbeknownst to her, put a picture of my Oma in the paper responding to a personal ad. Shortly after she was surprised to be contacted by Mr. Hans Sauter. My Oma was painfully shy, but it must have been written in the stars because she reluctantly agreed to go meet this guy. He set up a date and a time, and off she went. She said she can remember it so clearly, him walking down the pier towards her with a sparkle in his eye. My Opa still had a mischievous sparkle in his eye until the day he left us. They went and sat on a little wooden bench to talk. My Oma tells me they always had so much to talk about, even on that first day. It was like they were long lost friends. He visited every Sunday and in the summer they took a motorcycle to Switzerland. It was the first time he ever yelled at her, probably to calm down. My Opa was a yeller and my Oma is a worrier. They married one year later. Oma tells me that communication was their strength, and lectures me about how important it is in a relationship. I think their ability to stay married for 56 years had a lot to do with the sparkle in his eye too. They went back to Germany in the 80s and took a picture on the same bench.
She says, “So that’s our story”…and I’m holding back the tears. A few years ago when we had to put my Opa in a home she was upset and cried to my mom, “This is the end of our life together.” In their old age they both often went on about how fast time goes. She could tell me the story about how they met like it was just yesterday, and all of a sudden it’s six decades later, and the first Christmas they weren’t spending together.
On boxing day after work that year I went to my Oma’s and she showed me the picture that her friend had sent into the paper. Then she showed me a whole photo album of pictures taken before she had met my Opa and it made me think that we’re not so different from our grandparents. She laughed with her friends, went skiing, traveled, and had a big grin on her face standing beside her best friend. The world is different in countless ways compared to the world in which my Oma met my Opa, but the feelings are the same and the stories we share all have similar beginnings, dramas, and endings.
In Germany this summer, I want to know exactly what he said to her. But she sleepily says she doesn’t remember his exact words. Only that they talked like long lost friends. It was easy, she says. “There’s this feeling you get when it’s right”
On the way home my Oma and her friend were giggling in the back seat while I was trying not to let my eyes shut. Uncle Pete picked up on something they were saying and chuckled so I asked Oma to translate. When they were growing up they had a very strict curfew. When my Oma would get home too late, she would wait at the bottom of the stairs until the train sped by. When it was noisy enough to muffle the sound of her footsteps she would sneak into bed. It’s not very often Oma will tell a story that paints her in this light, but they are my favorite ones.
And that was the coolest part. Walking or driving through another tiny village and my Oma pointing out a set of stairs where she got in a fight at school because she was bragging about already knowing how to cross-stitch. (She would.) Or showing us where her and her family had to run to when their village was about to be bombed. Or the hill she sled down in the winter. Or the bench she first sat in to talk with my Opa.
Oma then tells me she can’t help but wonder what her life would have been like if they had decided to stay in Germany. “I could have grown old with my friends”. But she didn’t say it in a regretful way, because she tells me that the best thing they ever did was purchase a lot on Shuswap, which is the source of so much of my friends & families happiness. They could have never had that if they had stayed in Germany. But she ponders how her life could have been different had they made a different choice. And don’t we all do that from time to time? Our actions and choices have huge ripple effects. A tiny decision, like the one that got my Opa out of the war safely, creates a life that otherwise would not have existed. And at 84 I can only imagine what retracing your life must feel like. I wanted to know her happiest memories and her saddest. There was something about being in those places where her moments became memories that made the history of my family and where it all started gigantically more interesting.