I came across a picture of my paternal grandmother the other day. My mother always told me I looked just like this Oma. I see it now, in her pale blue eyes and the shape of her face. She was a tough old girl, having survived three life-threatening bouts with various cancers and living to the age of 94. I could do worse than to inherit her genes. But being likened to her was a dubious distinction. There was no love lost between her and my mother.
It was trouble at first sight. My father had endured a harsh childhood, raised in a very small, strictly Catholic town in Southern Germany. He once told me it was considered scandalous if someone married a person from the next village, let alone the other end of the country. He came home after the war with my mother – a Protestant from a bombed out city in Northern Germany. She couldn’t even talk with his parents because of their thick dialect. It was just as well. They considered her an “urban refugee,” and told my father if he married her they would literally (and legally) disown him. It was no idle threat.
My parents immigrated to Canada. As far as my grandparents were concerned, my brother and I didn’t exist. Several years later, after his father had died, Pa began corresponding with his mother. Sometimes she responded, sometimes not. Regardless, my father wrote faithfully every two weeks.
“Why bother?” my mother would say, “She hasn’t even answered you.”
“She’s still my mother,” was his only reply.
After 20 years in Canada, Pa made his first trip back to Germany and visited his mother. He died three years later. For the first time ever, a letter arrived from Oma addressed to my mother. She expressed regret for the years of estrangement and gratitude that my father had reconciled with her.
I look at her photo now and a wave of sadness washes over me. She pushed her son away, rejected her daughter-in-law and never knew my brother or me. What a waste.
This Mother’s Day weekend we’ll be celebrating my mother-in-law’s 85th birthday. Unlike my Oma, Mom has always been an important part of our family life and especially loves her grandchildren. They all treasure memories of spending time with her – reading stories, playing games, having sleepovers. She still bakes cookies for them. She never missed a birthday, graduation or wedding. She prays for each of them regularly. And now she’s the proud great-grandmother of six boys and three girls.
A few weeks ago I took her to see the newest member of the clan – our fifth grandchild – Hanna Lee Hope Smith. I watched Mom cradle the baby in her lap. She gently stroked Hanna’s long, delicate fingers and contentedly inhaled that newborn fragrance. My daughter Stephanie (now the mother of two under two) looked on with sleep-deprived pride as Mom commented on how beautiful Hanna is.
I sat on the floor playing with big sister Abigail, watching the generations interact and realizing that no matter how many grandchildren the Lord may bless me with, each and every one of them is a truly unique and precious gift. That’s what makes my Oma’s story so tragic.
When I look into Hanna’s face I see features from both of her parents. In some amazing way, she seems to change with each passing week, as all babies do. I think she has my nose. (Lucky girl!) I look at Abigail and daydream how much the sisters may or may not resemble each other someday. I hope they will be close friends. I wonder what plans the Lord has in mind for Hanna. What gifts and abilities will he bless her with? Will she love music and animals and chocolate? Will she get married someday and have kids of her own? Will she tell them the stories of her family’s history? Oh, Lord, let her tell them the story of Jesus. Let a life of faith be her greatest legacy.
Not that I’m in a hurry for any of my grandchildren to grow up. It’s too much fun being part of their childhood, almost like reliving the days when I had my own kids, minus the sleepless nights.
This Mother’s Day I will thank the Lord for the mothers in my life, young and old, across the generations. I’ll thank him for the gift of being a mother and grandmother myself, for the special bond of mothers and children, and for the fact that the joy of motherhood, in all its glory, just never gets old.
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