My grandmother, my Oma, my father's mother, Greta Platschek Meitner (zikhronah livrakha)--died Monday morning at 12:45am. She was 92 years old, and she was my last surviving grandparent.
I've written many poems about my maternal grandmother--my Baba--who survived Auschwitz, and was warm, funny, and unbelievably strong-willed. At 94, after having her leg amputated, she was still in physical therapy every day trying to re-learn to walk. Baba's first language was Yiddish, and she was an old-school baleboosteh--a chicken-soup-making machine, who lived in Florida in the winters, a bungalow colony in the Catskills in the summers, and was great at dispensing gifts, guilt, advice, and snacks in equal measures.
My Oma was a different species of Jewish grandmother--the increasingly rare Jewish Yekke--and she fit the stereotype almost exactly. Oma was so punctual that we used to have to tell her we were picking her up five minutes later than we actually were, or she'd be waiting in the lobby of her apartment building for us looking testily at her watch. She was also quite formal, a little humorless, occasionally arrogant, and generally aloof. She spoke German rather than Yiddish, was as Jewishly unobservant as possible, and, when we visited her, often made us elaborate German dishes that involved some form of pork, like Rouladen (pickle, onion, egg, and bacon wrapped in beef). I'll get back to the bacon in a minute.
Oma was born in 1918 in what's now the Czech Republic. She emigrated in late 1939 to Haifa, when it was still Palestine, to escape the Nazis. Margot Singer has a wonderful book called The Pale of the Settlement that recreates that time and place--Mt. Carmel in the 1940's--and the experience of these European transplants in the new land of Israel. It's shockingly close to my grandmother's story, as the Singers were good family friends of my grandparents, and lived next door to them in Haifa.
My most vivid memories of Oma are from my childhood. She worked at Tilbury Fabrics in Manhattan for 20 years (1960-1980), and I can still remember taking the subway to work with her--the exact tint of the light near the tracks in the 71st Street Station in Forest Hills, and the way she'd flip and unfold large bolts of cloth. When I was seven or eight, she taught me to make her pflaumenkuchen--her plum cake. I can still see her thumbs splitting each black Italian plum down the middle, digging out the almond-like pit, and setting it in the rectangular cake pan.
Like Baba, Oma was tough--she took care of my grandfather through years of Parkinson's disease, and then survived two hip fractures herself. But Oma was prickly, and sometimes she was hard to love. Both of my grandmothers settled in the same condominium complex in Hallandale, Florida by accident. It was a large development of ten or twelve buildings, but Oma and Baba managed to buy condos in the same building; Baba was on the 3rd floor, and Oma was on the 5th.
Every winter my sister and I, and sometimes my cousins, would be shipped down to visit the grandmothers around Christmas time. Every year Oma would invite Baba up for dinner, and serve her Rouladen, though Baba was strictly Kosher and didn't eat pork. They played cards, but never together--Oma liked Bridge and Baba loved poker. My Florida memories are hazy now: a lot of shag carpeting, sunburn, air conditioning, Feliz Navidad on loop over the loudspeakers at the Diplomat Mall, the Early Bird Special at 5pm at the local Chinese restaurant.
In their last years in Florida, before both of my grandmothers ended up in assisted living facilities, Oma started losing her sight, and Baba started losing her hearing; we used to joke that between the two of them, they still had full use of their senses. But how to elegize Oma, who has resisted making her way into my poems for so long? I think about, of all things, ceramics. When my grandfather died, Oma took up potting at the local Y despite her arthritis. She made amazing things out of clay--an exquisite rendering of my cousins' family dog (a longhair!), beautifully glazed hand-built dishes and bowls and platters that were precise and delicate. I only have one piece of hers left--a blue and white oval plate--which shattered about a year ago, around the time she couldn't remember who I was when I'd visit her. I still have both the pieces on a shelf in the garage.
Exercise of the night: Write a poem about a relative that you've never written about before--your least poetic relative, your relative who's hardest to love.
Poem of the night:
My Papa's Waltz by Theodore Roethke
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.