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Thirty years ago yesterday I got a little glimpse of eternity. It was both horrifying and reassuring beyond measure.
Let me explain.
A few years before that, my Oma – my mom’s mom, passed away in Germany, and since mom was there – she asked her dad, my Opa, if he would want to come live with us, and so he did. I still remember seeing him at the international arrivals terminal at Sea-Tac, wearing his wool coat, his old leather shoes, and his felt hat. He looked like a time traveler amidst all the hustle and bustle of the other travelers, and in some way, he was.
The goal was to have him stay for the winter, and then see how he was handling the change and go from there. When my mom’s brother (my uncle) came to visit, Opa was thrilled to see him, but, facing an empty house back in Germany, and having spent some time with us, surrounded by two generations of family all in the same house, he wondered aloud to mom, “Do I have to go back?”
Mom was overjoyed and told him he didn’t have to, so he stayed where he knew he was loved, where he knew he had a little garden he could work in, and we absolutely loved him, and he us.
I’ve written at least one story about him, and I’ll write more stories about him but yesterday was a day for thinking, and reflecting. I sent flowers to mom, and wrote my uncle a letter in German because he wasn’t here, and his English is what he learned in school and a British POW camp in WWII.
“I’ve been meaning to write for some time, and today I couldn’t put it off any longer. 30 years ago this morning, Opa went to Heaven, and I was there when it happened…”
…mom’s cousins had flown in the night before, and Opa had stayed up late to say hi to them when we got home from the airport. They talked for about half an hour, and then all went to bed.
Saturday was a gorgeous day, and we got up a little later than usual. I’d been downstairs, and people were awake, so I went to my room to write a letter to a friend on my old Remington Noiseless typewriter. It wasn’t really noiseless, it just made thunking sounds instead of the whapping sounds a normal typewriter made. So I was just hammering that letter on it, the sun was shining, and I heard the floor in the hallway creak as Opa walked by. He pushed open the door just a bit and waved at me, peeking in like a little elf. I stopped typing and waved back. He headed further down the hall to go downstairs, and as I went back to my typing, I heard this unending, unimaginable crash like I’d never heard before. Even all these years later, I’m at a loss to find words to describe it, and in the moment after the crashing sound stopped and before I got up, I heard my dad’s voice yelling, “Tom! You know First Aid! Come down here!” – I ran down the stairs I’d helped him up so many times, and saw Opa lying in the middle of a bunch of broken pottery, a huge gash on the top of his head.
I yelled for a flashlight, and for the first time in my life, shined a light in someone’s eyes, like I’d been taught in my First Aid class, only to have no one looking back at me. I yelled for dad to call the hospital for a helicopter (I’d had a bit of experience with them) and went back to Opa. He had a pulse, but it was irregular, so I didn’t start CPR, but kept checking his eyes. One responded, the other didn’t, and was pretty much dilated. I knew then, if I hadn’t known earlier, that things were very, very bad. Mom’s cousins were standing behind me as I was working on him. Dad had the phone cord stretched as far as it would go to tell me that the hospital couldn’t just send a chopper – that a medic needed to call it.
He handed me the phone, and the person on the other end of the line indeed said I couldn’t order one… Only a medic could do that. I asked him, politely, but in no uncertain terms, to call the medics then. He said he would.
About that time Opa had a pretty big convulsion, and one of mom’s cousins blurted out, “Der Stirbt!” (He’s dying!) – I wasn’t ready to accept that – and told her, also in no uncertain terms to shut up. I was 21 and wasn’t quite of the age where I could tell her that (she was mom’s age), but I did.
In less than a minute the siren went off for the Volunteer Fire Department in our town. The fellow on the other end of the line had made the call. Help was on the way.
The sirens and the throbbing sound of the old aid car stopped in front of the house. Someone opened the door and the paramedics crowded into the hallway, checking Opa and getting a pair of inflatable pants on him to keep his blood up where it needed to be.
I stood up and made room for Roy, the police officer and paramedic who’d been involved the time I’d needed a helicopter to get to a hospital, and he started doing CPR. By this time there were so many people in the hallway it was hard to move. Mom and I stood in the door to the living room just off the hallway, and we both (we talked about this later, not right then) were keenly aware of a presence above and between us. It was clear to both of us that it was Opa’s spirit, leaving at that time, and we both remembered “hearing” – honestly, “sensing” is more accurate – the words, “Lass mi doch ganga” – translated from our dialect,
“Just let me go…”
But things were moving, and once paramedics arrive, they start working and won’t stop until things are dealt with, one way or the other.
It was quickly decided that he’d go to the hospital in the ambulance, and mom and I followed in my old Saab, and we drove as fast as we could to catch up, watching Roy doing CPR on Opa the whole way. He must have been absolutely drained by the time we got to the hospital. I remember trying to pass it so we could get there and be parked by the time it got there, but the car, it turned out, had a clogged fuel filter and wouldn’t let me pass, so I tucked in behind it again, watching Roy trying to pump life into Opa’s chest through the ambulance’s back window.
We got there, and they rushed him in straight through the E.R, Roy still doing the CPR as he ran alongside the gurney. Mom and I were told to wait in a stuffy waiting room, but there were so many people there, we told them we’d be outside as we tried to comprehend all that had happened. They promised they’d send someone for us if there was anything we could do.
At 12:00 straight up, the sliding doors opened and someone came out and told us he was gone. They led us into the room he was in, partitioned off by curtains, and there was our Opa, lying on a bed, covered with sheets, looking as peaceful as anything. Mom took some scissors and cut a little of his beard off to remember him by, we signed some papers, and then headed home, both, admittedly in a bit of shock.
Our day had changed pretty drastically.
By the time we got home, there was no evidence of any pottery on the floor. The cousins were doing their best to be or look busy, and their thoughts of having a fun visit turned into thoughts of helping mom plan a funeral.
We stood there, mom and I, where we’d stood earlier, and realized we’d both heard Opa tell us, reassuringly, “Just let me go.” –
And we had to.
He was 10 days short of his 89th birthday.
This was August 6th, 1983, and I remember it as if it were yesterday, and every year I make sure my mom has flowers on that day, to remind her that someone remembers her Papa, my Opa.
It was only yesterday, as I was talking to Mom on the phone, that I finally realized, that Opa’s time on this earth was over that day, stairs or not. We found out much later that the doctors said he’d had a heart attack, which was likely when he’d lost his balance and tried to catch himself on that vase, but it went down the stairs and so did he.
And even though I’m now considered grown up and a man, there’s still a much younger ‘me’ inside who misses his Opa…
Take care folks… love the ones you have – you never know how much time you’ll have with them.
I’m always amazed at how intertwined things can be so as to become a braid of events that become larger than the sum of their parts. One of them came together just recently that left me pondering many, many things, but I have to leave some details to my special guest author. You’ll understand why in a moment. But first, the strands themselves:
- A couple of weekends ago, we said goodbye to our beloved grandma for the last time. It caused me to look back a bit, at the 94 years of her life, and the lives of those around her.
- This last weekend, I went through a stack of 4 x 5 transparencies, some 50 years old, some older. Some had color as bright as the day they were taken, some were black and white. And while I was searching, a picture came up that hadn’t seen the light of day more than a couple of times in the last few decades. And it caused me to look back, both figuratively and literally, a bit more.
- Then last Sunday there was an article in the paper about the 50th anniversary of the 1962 World’s Fair, in Seattle, Washington, but most importantly, there was a story about Belgian Waffles.
- And that reminded me of a story my mom told, and wrote, about those very Belgian Waffles, which were an absolute hit at the fair, and which made a lasting impression on her.
And over time, hearing those stories, and seeing the pictures, made me realize that history, and we can call it that, wasn’t dull and dreary, faded black and white images. It made me realize that life way back then was just as full and vibrant as it is today, with real people, living life as best they could, sharing responsibilities and joys just like we would…
…and then I saw a connection between all of those disparate thoughts, those strands of the bigger braid being woven together up there that I hadn’t seen before.
See, in 1962, the grandma we said goodbye to a few weekends ago was younger than I am now. She babysat my sister and me so a young couple could have some time off and spend a whole day away from the responsibilities of raising two young children. That young couple was my mom and my dad, and while my grandma watched us, mom and dad headed north, to the Big City of Seattle, to see the World’s Fair – and – well, actually, let me introduce my guest writer for today, telling the story of the beginning of that braid, the very story of the Belgian Waffles mentioned in that newspaper article, not as a historical event looking back 50 years, but through the eyes of a young woman, only in America for a few years, still learning about the country, the climate, and the culture.
Oh… And the waffles.
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome my mom.
A memory of the 1962 World Fair
By I. Roush
The pictures I saw in the papers reminded me so much of the equally famous Fernseh Turm (TV tower) in Stuttgart, in the area of my home town in Germany. The two looked like twins, and that alone made me want to go to see it at the Fair.
I didn’t have the foggiest idea of what to expect at the Fair.
Was I ever surprised!
My dear mother-in-law volunteered to take care of our two little ones, our 3 month old baby and a toddler, which gave my husband and me a chance to make a full day of it, a very welcome treat from full-time parenting.
At the Fair we walked from exhibit to exhibit and marveled over new inventions from all over the world. It was not only inventions but also people from all over the world. This could be clearly seen in their faces and many times also in their clothes.
It was fascinating, and a tremendous amount to take in. New gadgets for the household were demonstrated in one building, in another was an enormous rotating oven that was almost hypnotic to watch as it churned out hundreds of the well-known scones at a time. But even so it seemed they could not be produced fast enough to satisfy hungry Fair-visitors.
In another building was the art gallery. I remember one painting of a seascape which was so realistic that I felt the need to stay back for fear I might otherwise get wet. (I decided right there and then, that’s the way I wanted to learn how to paint water.)
Then we saw something special.
It was the Belgian Waffles. I never had heard of those.
By this time my tired feet reminded me that it was time to take a break and my stomach was in total agreement with them.
There was quite a large crowd standing in line already in front of the raised platform from which those waffles were handed down. They looked so inviting with that generous helping of luscious ripe strawberries and an even larger portion of whipping cream on top.
My husband and I looked at each other, and then realized this wasn’t such a hard decision to make, so we joined the waiting throng to be served. We hadn’t been there very long when the lady, who was handing down those yummy looking waffles, stopped and looked right at me. I’d never seen her before, and couldn’t imagine she had anything to say to me, so I looked left and then right, but there was nobody else who seemed to feel singled out by her. But then she pointed her finger right at me and with a loud voice announced:
”You probably have to go back to your booth, so I better serve you first”.
My Dirndl had given me away.
I realized that she had seen the Dirndl and thought I was one of the people who was actually part of the fair, but of course I wasn’t. There was no booth or exhibit I had to hurry back to.
Then again, I couldn’t argue with a person who was in the process of doing her ‘good deed’ for the day.
As I stood there trying to figure out what to do, the crowd helped make the decision, parted, and graciously made a path for me to receive the waffle the lady was offering me.
My dear husband didn’t wear any ‘Lederhosen’, so he could not pass as my Bavarian escort but she was gracious enough and served him also.
Happily carrying our plates, we looked for the nearest bench where we could sit down, I could rest my tired feet and enjoy those wonderful Belgian Waffles to the fullest.
That memory of the 1962 World Fair still brings a happy smile to my face and a warm feeling to my heart.
Thank you Belgian waffle Lady!
So – the strands of the braid come together with a thank you to the Belgian Waffle lady, a belated thank you to my grandma for babysitting my sister and me those many years ago, making this trip, and this story, possible – and a very special thanks to my mom, who wrote the story you just read. (You can see her below wearing the Dirndl in a photo taken around that time, also in a photo taken a number of years later, when she discovered that making dolls wearing Dirndls was fun, too, and one of her and dad, taken a few years before the story happened)
On the flip side of things, while gold fish aren’t really all that expensive, the idea of something taking the fish that, say, hadn’t earned the fish with that sweat equity, that just – well – it irritated mom.
And one day, a poor, unfortunate creature made the incredibly bad decision to go fishing.
Now some of the creatures that had gone fishing in mom’s fish pond were raccoons, and they were moderately successful. Some of the creatures were neighborhood cats, who just couldn’t seem to ignore the little orange – what would you call them, “containers of food”? – swimming around in there.
Note – the image you have in your mind of these creatures fishing does not involve little raccoons or kitty cats sitting there in little kitty sized chairs, with kitty or raccoon sized fishing poles, waiting for the little fishies to bite. They got a little more intimately involved than that, and got very close to the water, and then just scooped the fish out with their claws. Kind of like combing some grunk out of your hair, only instead of hair, it was water, and instead of grunk it was a fish.
But this day was different.
This day the creature was running a little short on claws, and actually, a little short on fur. See, one of the creatures that apparently liked hanging around mom’s fish pond watching said fish was a fairly large garter snake.
Now garter snakes aren’t poisonous, we used to play with them when we were kids, my cousin, bless her fuzzy little heart, would find baby ones and put them in her pocket, then come into the house with her hands full (note: her hands were ALWAYS full in these situations) and ask her mom, “Mommy, can you get the dime out of my pocket?” (it didn’t matter what she asked for – the goal was to get her mom’s hands in her pocket.) Just so you know, her mom HATED snakes. Her mom reached into her pocket expecting to find a dime, and instead found something that gave her an absolutely astonishing case of the heebie jeebies as she found, with her fingers, an itty bitty snake.
The polite thing to say here at this point is that my cousin laughed.
And my aunt freaked…
It’s one of those things you can look back on and laugh.
Well, my cousin can, not sure if my aunt can.
And that’s the kind of stuff we did as kids with garter snakes.
But… this is my mom’s story…
My mom was a little different when it came to snakes, and one day she’d found that not only was her fish pond short one fish, but the creature that had gone fishing had done so without a pole of any kind…
It was the snake.
And it most definitely upset mom. That was HER fish, from HER pond, and no dang snake was going to take that fish from her without a fight.
So she did the first thing she knew she needed to do.
She got her camera, and took a picture – just to prove she wasn’t telling a “fish tale”.
Then she got the pitchfork – mom’s goal was to scoop the snake up and fling it away from the fish pond.
However, snakes are very good at slithering, and slithering snakes sneak stealthily away from (quick, what’s a word for pitchfork that starts with ‘s’?”). Okay, let’s see if we have all this right…
- Get picture of snake trying to eat goldfish… Check…
- Got goldfish out of snake and back in water…. In progress.
- Oh – yeah… Wail on snake with pitchfork… Not checked…
See, it was only then, after she’d gotten a picture of it that she realized scooping said snake up was not going to work, and the snake made what might have been a bit of a mistake somewhere in there.
See, mom wanted the snake gone… She didn’t necessarily want it dead, she just wanted it gone. She had more invested in her fish (by a couple of bucks) than she did in the snake, and so among other things, it was simple economics…
The snake needed to go.
But the snake didn’t go, and then it looked up at her, and then, suddenly, thousands of years of history of women and snakes converged into one moment in time. I’m sure that if Eve had had the same pitchfork Mom did, the whole Garden of Eden thing would have been a WHOLE lot different.
Mom started absolutely wailing on that snake as if it was the son of Beelzebub himself. (Come to think of it…J).
This snake did not know what hit it.
In fact this snake didn’t know what KEPT hitting it, but it most definitely let go of the fish.
The slithering snake dropped the goldfish right about then – so she snagged it and threw it back into the pond, where it swam speedily away…
Mom tossed the fish back into the pond, then grabbed the snake by the tail. It was as long as from her waist to the ground. It then made the mistake of looking up at her – with goldfish scales in its mouth – and it hissed.
And the pitchfork was used, once again, for a purpose for which it was not designed, but was quite suitable for.
The snake, by that point, was getting to be pretty ambivalent about the whole thing. In fact, with apologies to Johnny Hart, trying to slither with 432 slipped disks was a bit of a challenge, and it was then that she carried it a few hundred feet away – across a little creek, and hucked the snake over there like Indiana Jones would have flung his whip.
And the funny thing is – that snake never bothered mom or her fish again…