Every time I go to see my mom I end up bringing back things from her house. Sometimes it is just an interesting newspaper article or a magazine, sometimes clothing or trinkets from my childhood. This time when I went home, I received a tischtuch – a table cloth.
Margrete, c. 1940
Born in Vegasack, Germany in 1908, my father’s mother, Margrete Oltmann, was a simple woman. I only ever knew her as Oma. When her mother died, Oma was only a young girl, but inevitably took on the duties of keeping house and tending to the other children until her father remarried in the late 1920s. As the story goes, she was devastated. Having been replaced by another woman and no longer the sole object of her father’s affection, Oma was bitter and decided to travel to America for a job as a live-in housekeeper for a middle-class family.
In 1938, she married a butcher from Bauthen who had come to America in his twenties. They spoke the same language, and shared the same culture, and so instead of love, the marriage of convenience occurred and they moved to a house on Stanley Avenue around 86th Street in Brooklyn. Soon after my father was born, and then his sister.
My father and Inga, 1946
They never expected to live in America long; they were going to move back to Germany. There are pictures of my father in lederhosen and handmade clothing. Their life in Brooklyn was simple, even meager. You could call Oma cheap. She darned socks, after all, well into my father’s adulthood. But with the expectation of going back to the “old country”, my father was raised speaking exclusively German, and when he began school at around six years hold, he returned the first day crying. When Oma asked him why he said that the teacher told him he had to bring a tischtuch to school. Oma went to the school, upset, and tried to tell the teacher they didn’t have enough money for him to bring one. The teacher then explained she didn’t want a tischtuch – a tablecloth – but wanted them to bring tissues.
I only have snippets of memory of Oma. Her silver hair pinned up with bobby pins, her dark rimmed glasses. The smell of her house. Her love of candles. I never knew the woman who embroidered handkerchiefs, napkins, and tablecloths. She had begun embroidering a tablecloth and napkin set for her daughter as a dowry. But her daughter, Inga, died when she was three of Leukemia. Oma never finished the set.
In 1950 my uncle Dieter was born. And when Oma died in the 1989, Dieter was left everything. The snippets that I have went with him, and not until I was in my mid twenties did I really begin developing a relationship with Dieter. Now, my house is full of her furniture that Dieter gave me. The only piece that holds a memory attached to it is my dresser, which was hers. I remember nap time at Oma’s as a child. The center part of the dresser has a door with a latch that I would lay in my sleeping bag on the floor in front of and flick until Oma would get annoyed and tell me nap time was over.
And now I have one of her tablecloths in my own house. Oma was a hard woman. German and stubborn, bigoted and bitter, and old fashioned. Perhaps as a young woman, back in Vegasack, she had been kind, but there are few happy memories of her to pass on. Oma never finished the set that she began for Inga. My mother encouraged Oma to finish it at one point but she always had an excuse not to. Her eyesight, her aging hands. I don’t remember her voice or any real specific events. But now I have one piece of her from before she was so bitter. One tischtuch.