Roaming About

A Life Less Ordinary

A Very Important Woman – My Oma

Today’s blog post is a difficult one for me. I have written emotion-laden blogs before, like the one about our sweet, smart and cute dogs Kali and Darwin and the one about my sister-in-law Dru. I never wrote about my dear aunt Monique or my paternal grandma I called meter. Both also passed away while Mark and I were sailing the seven seas. During all those years abroad, I had one massive dread and worry. It had to do with my maternal grandma, my oma, who I loved more and longer than most anyone else.

When I was thinking about this subject, I realized it is International Women’s Day today. Perfect! What better day to celebrate the woman who meant so much to me, my whole life?

Oma and her “favorite” grandchild in 2008

When my brother and I were little, she would take care of us after school, until our mom picked us up after work. My memories still return to her kitchen, when I eat certain foods or smell certain products. She and my peter Marcel – a veteran from WWII – had a soft dog, Pasha, and when we needed a bathroom visit, we braved the cold to go to a separate building outside. The toilet did have a flush, though, unlike the one at my other grandparents’ house.

An oldie: oma on the left and meter on the right. My mum and I in the middle, in the summer of 2006. One of my first digital photos!

As a teenager in Belgium, I visited her very often and always found a listening and understanding ear. My oma was honest and straightforward. If she didn’t agree with me, she would show it. Nevertheless, we had a true loving and deep connection and she never criticized me, just exchanged opinions. There was nothing I couldn’t talk to her about. I appreciated her hospitality, her demeanor, her intelligence and her wit. I was a rebel in those years, and not the easiest child, but I would never dare to hurt my oma’s feelings.

Oma and her best friend Clotille in oma’s kitchen in 2007.

My travels started in earnest when I reached my early twenties. “You gotta do it when you are young,” oma said, as I set out for the next year-long adventure in South East Asia, sending post cards along the way and bringing back souvenirs for her from every country I visited; a habit I would keep up. Of course, she was always happy when I was back in Belgium, but – while curious about it – she never urged me to settle. She valued being kept up-to-date while I was abroad and read my travel reports with interest. My mom printed them out and she kept them all, as well as the letters and poems I wrote her. The file is 2 inches thick. She also once asked me to write a list of all the countries I had visited. It was her book mark and I was to update it each time I returned. I wonder where that list is. It is the only track record of my globetrotting.

Prints of letters and travel reports I sent to oma

When I reached my thirties, I was still not settled. Her “Do you think you will ever settle?” turned into “I have a feeling that you won’t ever settle, will you?” accompanied by a smile. She knew me better than anyone. Years later, she would say “You will never return to Belgium, will you? I can’t blame you. What does this country have to offer you?” and then, she would wave me off again, teary eyed. “Be safe and give my regards to Mark!” She liked Mark a lot. She could see we loved each other and that brought so much happiness to her. Whenever Mark joined me to Belgium for a visit, every other year, I would be their translator. For not speaking any English, my oma sure nodded a lot when Mark was talking to her. It must have been all those American and British soap operas she watched.

The last ten years, I have been creating a calendar for her with a big photo of Mark and I adorning each month. This way, I was still a part of her life and she could see us while we were thousands of miles away. She loved the calendars and looked forward to each year, when the thirteen new photos were revealed, as she slowly paged through the booklet. Every year, amongst other times, I called her on her birthday. No matter where I was, how remote the island, or how far removed from land, I found a way to wish my dear oma a happy birthday.  I could imagine her big smile on the other side of the line.

Oma looking at her new 2011 calendar, presented on her 90th birthday

My aging oma was on my mind a lot (imagine my fear when, after I applied for a US green card twice, I learned I could not leave the country until the process was completed – we are talking about six months each time), and I tried to fly back to Belgium once a year. During those brief trips “home”, I would visit her as often as I could. Initially at her house, in which she was still living throughout her eighties and early nineties. After her first question “How’s your love life going?” was answered, we would spend hours chatting, looking at exotic photos, pointing out my current location on the world map and drinking tea with a cookie. Then, she would make chicken breast, rice, and sweet and sour sauce from a jar, or boiled potatoes with meat patties and warm cherries in a thick sauce for lunch. She thought those were my favorite meals, and I never told her otherwise. If I visited late afternoon, we would have dark bread and lunch meat for dinner. And always, she would offer me fruit or a treat. When prompted, she would reminisce about World War II or confirm how much she loved her husband and what a gentleman he was. My peter Marcel passed away too early, when I was about 16.

One day, I called oma from our boat in French Polynesia and I could sense something was amiss. She couldn’t manage a conversation with me and handed the phone to one of my aunts who was visiting. That’s when I found out about her short-term memory loss and that she could not handle talking on the phone anymore. Neither could she live on her own any longer. This moment – it still tears me up – came as a massive shock to me and I realized I had lost her there and then. Not physically, but mentally. It didn’t take long before she moved into a nursing home and her house was sold. The house in which I made so many memories. The bed I shared with my oma when I stayed over. All the masks and souvenirs I had brought her from all over the world. The big black and white photo of my peter Marcel in his fire fighter outfit and medals that hung on the dining room wall. It is all gone, but bubbles up in my dreams and thoughts.

For the last three years, oma lived in a nursing home, where I visited her often during my stays in Belgium. It was not the same. I still loved her immensely and enjoyed being in her presence, but that strong connection we had, was no more. While I patiently repeated my sentences and answers tens of times, I smiled at my oma and appreciated her still being around. Her sense of humor never ceased. She still remembered episodes from the past and that I was her favorite grandchild. I was so glad and relieved that she kept recognizing me, even last year in May. Every time I left on the last of my visits to her, I feared the worst, that I would never see her again. My hugs and my eyes reflected this worry, but I didn’t want to upset her. As always, I hoped that she could hang on another year. Before I returned to the US last spring, she was tired and fell asleep on her bed, underneath the colorful calendar. I sat with her, holding her hand, for a long, long time. As I looked at her fragile 95-year-old body, tears ran over my cheeks. It was the last time I saw her alive. As if I knew.

Mark and I recently booked flights to Belgium. While my oma’s decline was imminent, I was wishing she could hold on, at least until June. It was not to be. Last Thursday, she suffered another series of strokes and on Friday, March 3rd, she passed away. I wasn’t there! As with each loss of a loved one, another part in me died as well. While I realize she lived a long, happy, full life – she was born in November 1920 – losing her is tough. We had such a unique relationship and she meant so much to me. This last week has been a blur. Today, on International Women’s Day, her cremation service took place in Belgium. I wasn’t there! I could have been. When I found out the details of the service on Saturday, I booked a plane ticket to Belgium for Sunday and packed a bag. I would stay a week, be there for my family, attend the funeral, read my poem, and say a final goodbye to my sweet oma. Ten hours of hemming and hawing later, I changed my mind, cancelled the flight and remained in the arms of my supportive husband.

“When I die, I don’t want you to buy an expensive ticket and come to the funeral!” my oma had always told me. “I would rather have you do something nice with that money.” “We will see about that,” had been my standard response. Just the thought of her dying, debilitated my brain. “Well, it would be a stupid waste of money, time and resources,” she continued, “since I will be dead anyway. I won’t even know you are there.” As always, she had a point. While part of me regrets not being there today, I am with her in spirit, all the time, wherever I am. She meant the world to me and I will keep exploring that world, in honor and remembrance of her!

For Dutch-speaking readers of my blog, you can read the poem I wrote for my oma’s service here.

33 Comments

  1. What a beautiful tribute to your oma, Liesbet. I am so sorry for your loss. It is obvious she was a very special woman who meant the world to you.

    I was not present when my grandmother died, either, but I take some comfort in the fact that these wonderful women were happy we were living our lives to the fullest, refusing to settle. Where would we be without the grandmothers who loved us unconditionally?

    Sending you love and hugs. (And btw, I hate it when people say, “She had a good life,” as if we shouldn’t be sad when someone elderly passes. I hope no one says it to you in that way. She may have had a good life, but you still have every right to miss her and grieve her passing. Grief isn’t reserved for those who die when they’re young.)

    *hugs*

  2. What a wonderful tribute to your oma. You spent time with her when it was most important – when she knew you were there. Now, take her advice and do something nice for yourself… maybe a nice dinner with Mark where you can both toast to her memory.

  3. So so so so so sweet. I had a special relationship with both my Grandma and my Yiayia, too, and I miss them to this day. Both lived long, good lives, but there are still times I lament their passing. (One day I saw a random bathrobe in some dumb department store a decade later, and it reminded me of my Yiayia so much that I started to cry in the store!) This is a beautiful tribute to your Oma, and I think taking the time to put your thoughts down like this is an even greater honor than attending a funeral.

  4. What a heart tugging post Liesbet. Your love for your dear Oma pours out like a beautiful river. Please accept our sincere sympathy at your loss. As hard as it was not to be there for the funeral good for you to listen to her wise words. Sending big hugs during this difficult time.

  5. What a lovely post. Loss is never easy but is particularly difficult when miles separate us from loved ones. Sending my sincerest condolences and hugs!

  6. An excellent tribute! Thank you for giving me (us) a little insight into her life as well as sharing the love you clearly had for her. My condolences for your loss.

  7. This was a moving tribute to your Oma Liesbet. I’m glad you shared.

    The huge stack of letters and and travel reports says so much about the connection and value of this amazing woman.

    This was an excellent way to commemorate one of my new favorite holidays.

  8. Such a sweet tribute and blessing! Our Omas never truly leave us, I’m convinced. Love doesn’t end, it simply transitions.

  9. This is a beautiful and heartfelt tribute to a very beautiful and wise woman. Your Oma continues to live in your heart and mind and in that way, you share her with all of us.
    This is an exceptionally moving post for International Women’s Day. Thank you for sharing it!

  10. I had to take a moment before I could type my comment. Although you eloquently expressed this loving tribute to your oma, my words back to you will pale in comparison. I lost my grandmother when I was 19 and she was only 62. I attended her funeral , but even today 36 years later, I wonder how my life would have been if she lived a longer life, and seen her great grandchildren. Now hubby and I are keenly aware of our mothers’ possibly short lives left with us. We also will have to travel to see their last moments when the time comes. Thank you for sharing your heartfelt memories and wonderful photos. My condolences to you and Mark. 💔

  11. That was lovely to read. Lovely memories of your Oma.

  12. Liesbet, I’m so sorry for loss. I know it was difficult, but thank you for sharing a little of your oma with us — it was such a beautiful tribute to her and what she means to you. All my best to you and Mark during this difficult time. Stephanie

  13. So sorry to read about your loss, Liesbet. The strength of your relationship shines through your words and the lovely pictures of you with your Oma. Thinking of you x

  14. Such a beautiful and inspiring post, Leisbet. As someone whose last grandparent died when I was nine, I have longed for that kind of connection all my life. You were good to treasure it so deeply. 😍

  15. That last photo of the two of you is beautiful, Liesbet. 🙂 I’m sorry for your loss, but glad you have such a wealth of memories to look back on. Sending hugs!

  16. A beautiful tribute to your oma Liesbet and I am so sorry for your loss. She was and always will be an amazing person in your heart and you are blessed to have created so many memories together that will always live on. Thinking of you at this time and sending you lots of love across the miles xxx

  17. I’m so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing your oma with us, what a special person.

  18. Thank you all, my dear friends, for the kind words and heart-felt condolences. May we respect and cherish the important people in our lives forever! xx

  19. It’s so lovely that you had a close relationship with her. My grandparents lived so far away that I would see them once a year. So sorry for your loss.

  20. I loved your tribute to your Oma, Liesbet. I too, was blessed with grandmothers, but no one who lived to 95. My great-grandmother was 90, and my grandmother was 82, so I had many wonderful memories like yours with the women in my life who loved me. You did a beautiful job of telling the story of your relationship. I love the smile on her face as she looks at the calendar and again when she talks to the grandbabies. Your time together was so precious.

    • Wow, Marsha, you knew your great-grandmother? That is amazing. I have come to realize that all these years together are so precious. Some people might not live until their nineties, but quality of life is important and spending valuable time with loved ones goes a very long way! I am so glad you got to experience that as well. Thank you for the kind words.

  21. My condolences on your loss Leisbet. What a wonderful homage to her and of the precious time you spent with her.

  22. I’m so sorry for your great loss LIesbet. This was a beautiful tribute to your Oma, and perfectly timed for Women’s Day. <3

  23. So sad to lose your Oma, Liesbet. It is wonderful that you had such a deep and enduring relationship with her throughout your life. Your love for each other shines through in the tribute that you wrote and the photos.

    Jude

  24. I am glad that I finally had an opportunity to read this post. Made me cry! I love everything about this woman and your relationship. And I am glad that you followed her advice and didn’t go home. How wonderful that you had so many years to create memories! I lost both my grandmothers when I was in my teens and never stopped missing them.

    • Thank you, Lisa. She meant a lot to me. I am so very fortunate to have had her – the most important person in my life – with me for so long. I”m sorry you didn’t get to enjoy the company of yours any longer. The same happened to my granddads. One I never met, since he passed away when my dad was eighteen and the other one, my oma’s husband, passed away when I was a teenager. It does leave an empty space within me as well.

  25. Liesbet, it’s such a privilege to be invited into your life, here on your blog, to see and feel the close relationship you had and still have with your oma. Not everyone has this. A real treasure for the rest of your life. Thank you.

    • Thanks for paying us (both) a visit here, Diane. I’m sure we all have special people in our lives and it is nice to share some of those relationships with world.

  26. What a beautiful tribute to your beloved Oma. Be well and keep traveling the world.

Leave a Reply to restlessjo Cancel reply

© 2017 Roaming About

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: