Brief from Oma

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Laura Story Johnson


Brief from Oma
Photo Credit: Laura Story Johnson

When their family finally got off Ellis Island, my great-great-grandfather purchased his five daughters and one son the biggest orange he had ever seen. He splurged to celebrate their feet touching New York City streets. My great-grandmother coughed and so they’d waited and waited in the warren of rooms, praying that the harbor breeze would clear her lungs, blow them forward: deliverance. “If she goes back, we will all go back,” my great-great-grandfather said. Back to Germany, back to starvation. It was November, 1923 and my great-grandmother was twelve years old. It took her a few days to recover from the two weeks on the ocean, but the officials eventually let them through. My great-great-grandfather cut the orange, split it between his thin and worn family. Hope tasted sour and they had to choke it down.

My great-grandmother would laugh when she told of the grapefruit they all confused with an orange. Her laugh rumbled in her lungs, triggered a cough that never really went away, just like her accent. In America she learned English and became a teacher. She taught her students to say Jamaica: “Yamyaca.” She fell in love and married a horseman, keeping her marriage a secret because teachers could not marry. Eventually she delivered the twins she’d hidden under her dress and learned to cook. At the restaurant she made meals for businessmen, city folk. At home on the farm she made tiny cookies with aniseed, hardtack I hated as a child and longed for as an adult.

After I graduated from college she continued to mail me boxes of the tiny cookies: “kleügens” she called them. My new boyfriend knew them as pfeffernüsse. We ate them together at our plastic kitchen table looking out the window across our Soviet apartment complex. We dipped them in warm water that tasted, faintly, of coffee. I fiddled with the emptied packets of “Coffee King: American Flavor” from the window shop under our stairs as I told him about my Oma. Her strength was the reason I’d moved, the foundation that made me brave enough to seek meaning in foreign places. She always told me to see the world. And there I sat, around the world from her, eating something she had cooked in her Iowa kitchen. I could see her hands: long fingers, knuckles large with arthritis and farming, working the dough into little balls. They were my hands. Or, my hands were hers. The weight of a family recipe that had traveled so far sank in my chest and I suddenly longed to be closer to her. I wanted to soak her up before an inevitable happening that I couldn’t say out loud would occur. Instead I choked down the lump in my throat and put the rest of the kleügens in our cupboard.

I wrote her letters from Mongolia and told her the things we were experiencing. She wrote me back, sometimes confusing German with English as her mind so filled with life let the bubbles of memory overflow. I visited her on a cold November day when I returned for a couple of weeks to the United States. My boyfriend’s job kept him in Mongolia while I left. She asked me about my students and told me about her time as a teacher, experiences not that far removed from the book I was reading to my third graders. I taught my students to say pioneer: “Laura.” It was my name. Or, my name was hers. Some of my students thought that I was Laura Ingalls Wilder and that the book told the story of my life in America. I would laugh when I told of their confusion.

Laura Ingalls Wilder was a teacher too. Like my Oma, she was only a teenager when she first stood in front of a classroom. Like my Oma, she married a man who loved farming and horses. Like my Oma, the stories of her childhood seemed a world away and yet were mine. Everything had changed since she was a girl. In a lifetime the places she knew became unrecognizable. I realized that my students lived in a place where, seemingly, nothing had ever changed.

When a Mongolian colleague hosted us at her home, a ger on the steppe, I watched her third grade son gather dung for the fire. He was struggling in my class, grappling with the pronunciation of English words. He couldn’t understand our book, but maybe it wasn’t the words. What I understood seeing him leap onto a horse bareback was that for him that life, my Oma’s life, my life, were all the same. Time meant nothing; it was just foreign. When I was home, time meant everything. I held my Oma’s hand and we sat together on her couch, looking at the autumn leaves out the window and making plans for the summer when I would be back.

Like my Oma, I fell in love while I was a teacher. I decided to leave my job in Mongolia at the end of the school year to return home. My boyfriend decided to go with me. We knew we wanted to get married, but I needed him to meet my Oma, to be a part of my family before he joined my family. I mailed my Oma a picture of the two of us smiling and wearing red hats against the falling snow of Ulaanbaatar. I sent Russian fur hats home as gifts and sewed stockings out of silk from China. At Christmas we set the box of kleügens out in our living room and ate them with cocoa we made from grinding up chocolate bars into warmed milk. I wrote my great-grandmother a card and taught my boyfriend to say words in German. Letter: “brief.”

It was an unusually warm April day when my mother called. A postcard to my Oma, a picture of three little Mongolian boys holding lambs tucked in their del, sat on my desk. I’d typed it to make it easier for her to read, used a new ribbon in my ancient Olivetti. I wrote that I felt the energy of spring and told her we would be home in July; we’d already purchased our tickets. Then my mother’s broken voice said it out loud and hanging up the phone was an impossible happening. I let the foreign beeping of an ended phone call carry me with it, my hands, her hands, the phone’s cradle. Eventually I walked to my desk and clutched the postcard to my heart. I wept knowing that she would never receive it. Summer came early to Mongolia that year, but it was too late. I was too far away and couldn’t go back for the funeral.

A week after my mom’s phone call all of our snow had melted. On a beautiful Sunday afternoon my boyfriend and I hiked to the hills outside of Ulaanbaatar. There on a sunbaked ledge he built an ovoo, an offering of sticks sculpted into the celebration of a life, of all life. The ovoo pointed out across the valley toward the mountains we could see on the other side, shimmering in the distance. I faced west, home, and breathed in the warm blue sky. Then I sat on a rock and wrote my last letter to my Oma. I filled the page and strung a piece of string through it, tying it to the ovoo along with two blue prayer scarves. I held my boyfriend’s hand and said goodbye to her. She taught me to say goodbye: “Auf Wiedersehen.” It meant until we see each other again.

The following Tuesday morning there was an envelope waiting for me in my postal box. I couldn’t breathe when I saw the handwriting. Ten days after her death I got a letter from my Oma. She’d mailed it before she passed and suddenly there I sat in another world than her, holding something she had written. I clutched it to my heart before I could open it. When I finally did, I found another miracle. She wrote about the picture I sent her. The words were brief, but they were everything. She recognized the warmth I needed in his eyes and told me. She knew. From a picture, from a letter, they became family. I took the letter home to him and searched for the box of kleügens, tucked at the back of our cupboard. Somehow there were a few left and I ate them with the man I would marry. We didn’t dip them in anything. Kleügens soften with age.

In November she crossed an ocean. In November I crossed an ocean. In November my great-grandmother arrived in America. In November I held her hand. Beginnings. Endings. Hope. An unusually warm November day took my voice through an intense happening. I had to whisper to say her name out loud.

It was November, 2010 and my daughter was just a few minutes old. Lying with her at my breast, I stared into her black eyes, wondering at the journey, at her passage: deliverance. My husband cut an orange, split it between us. It was the sweetest thing I had ever tasted. We named our beautiful miracle after my Oma.

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Laura Story Johnson is an attorney working in human rights research and advocacy. Born and raised in Iowa, she has lived in New York City, bush Alaska, Mongolia, Boston, west of the Zambezi River in Zambia, and in Austria. Her work has appeared in the South Loop Review. She currently resides in Chicago with her husband and two young children. Email: lstory.johnson[at]gmail.com