May 6, 2010

Ode to Oma

May 5th marked the day of Dutch Liberation day in the Netherlands when Canadians freed Holland from Nazi occupation.

This day means a lot to me.  I am Canadian but I am also Dutch.  My father was born and raised in Holland but immigrated to Canada after marrying my mother.  I have been going back to my dad’s homeland since I was 3 months old.  Ever since I started forming words as a child, my parents spoke Dutch and English to me.  I was fortunate enough to spend an entire summer with my Oma and Opa (grandma and grandpa) when I was eleven and became fluent in conversational Dutch.  I still remember when I first dreamt in Dutch, this solidified the language in my mind.  I had no choice but to speak the language to my grandparents.  My Oma’s best English phrase was, “I am the boss”.  My Opa passed away the February following that amazing summer I spent with them and I am forever grateful that I did get to spend that time with him.  He used to smoke small cigars and whenever I smell them now, it takes me back to the time I was eleven, where he sat in his leather jacket with his aviator sunglasses and his snow white curly hair, drinking his coffee and smoking a cigar.

I had more of a chance to get to know my Oma as an adult.  I spent 3 weeks in Holland with her when I was 18 and visited her as much as I could when I was living in Scotland in my early 20s.  We would talk about everything.  Our conversations would linger long after dinner was over.  I smoked at that time and she would insist that I bring the ashtray inside so that I would not interrupt our "gezelligheid".  I always found it interesting how she had no problem with me smoking cigarettes but always told me to never smoke those “stokjes”, which translates to sticks.  She was referring to weed, ganja, marijuana, joints.  Contrary to popular belief the Dutch people themselves do not smoke a lot of weed, despite their many “coffee shops”.  Those that partake in this activity are mostly tourists and immigrants.  To give her peace of mind, I would tell a little white lie and say of course not.

My Oma was a stubborn woman who loved to spoil her three grandchildren with the little money that she had.  We would go out for coffee and she would refuse to let me pay.  She would take me shopping for clothes and when I would try to pay she would grab my forearm with her vice-like grip and give me her “don’t mess with me” glare.  It always brought a smile to my face and I would back down.  You just didn’t mess with Oma.

Sometimes Oma would go into stories about what it was like to live in Holland during World War II.  When the Nazis occupied the country the Dutch were not allowed to display any form of their national patriotism.  No flags, no colours, nothing.  Well, Oma had a pair of stockings that were the colour of the Dutch flag - red, white and blue, and one day she wore them out.  A Nazi soldier saw her, and while he didn’t confront Oma on the spot he came by the house later that evening when her father was home and confiscated those stockings.  As she told me this story her eyes gleamed with remembrance of her defiance but also of fear that something terrible could have happened to her father.

Sixty five years ago Canadian forces liberated the Netherlands from Nazi control.  The Dutch are forever grateful to Canada for being the country that freed them.  As the Dutch Prime Minister said on May the 5th, “Our liberators. Our heroes. Forever.”  This is a beautiful article in the Globe and Mail about the friendship that existed and still exists between the Dutch and Canadians. 

Oma used to always tell me how glad she was that we lived in Canada even though we were so far away.  Whether or not this was true she was showing her strength even though she missed us terribly.

The last time I saw my Oma was in the hospital.  She was tired and had just had enough.  But I tell ya, sometimes, that spark still shone right through.  One morning Mum and I were in her room visiting when two doctors came in to talk to her.  She was incredibly polite, answering their questions and saying good bye politely as they left the room.  But as soon as they were out ear shot she muttered, “Zak.”  While shaking her head.  Zak is a swear word that kind of means asshole and directly translates into balls.  It cracked me up!  Still the same fiery Oma.  No one was going to push her around.

It’s been nearly a year since I had to say goodbye to my Oma for the last time.  It was without a doubt the hardest thing I have ever had to do.  She meant and still means the world to me.  Sometimes I wish I could have known her better but I am also incredibly grateful that I knew her as well as I did.  I have all of her jewellery because I was, am, her only granddaughter.  I wear her beautiful necklaces with pride and get compliments on them all the time.  One of the things she used to say the most when I would put on a new shirt or dress or sweater was, “Met en mooie ketting, Juliantje” which means “Perfect with a pretty necklace, my little Juliana”.  This is how I will always remember her.


catherine said...

This is so beautifully, and tenderly, written! What an incredible relationship. Just beautiful.

Yolk E said...

What a touching tribute, J! Your grandma sounds like a wonderful person. It's so nice that we can use these holidays to remember the people in our lives who have gone before us. It's Mother's Day coming up, and I've been thinking of my mom who passed, and I'll be visiting my grandma later today. Special times...

Lorrena said...

What a beautiful tribute to your grandmother, Lady J. I'm sure she's smiling down on you from heaven.

bikramyogachick said...

Aw, that is so sweet! Beautiful!