I wrote this piece in October 2019: before the pandemic, before my mother died, and one year after my grandmother’s death. I wrote it from a place of disconnection with the traditional rituals of grieving. I wrote it during a time when I could turn to grief and pick it up, and even slip into it, for an hour or a day.
I share it now from the same room that my mother died in. From a place where grief has no discernible shape, because it lives in the spice drawer where she labeled each bottle, in the cat’s plaintive searching for her that can’t be soothed, and in the chic mustard sweatshirt of hers that I now wear.
I can’t smell grief on myself. Maybe others can, but to me it’s just the air now, and I’m not sure it’s even really there until I move a bit too quickly and feel it brush up against me.
A year after my Oma - my paternal grandmother Gisela, died - I forgot. I missed the date, even though I’d watched her light a candle on the anniversary of the death of her husband, mother, son, and siblings, year after year, without question or interruption. She’d place the flame, in its cheap red plastic casing, underneath the gallery wall holding stills of all her people, and explain to me in a ritualistic tone that lighting a candle is what you did. She often taught me the Austrian way of things, in that repetitive downtempo bred for the education of children.
But I missed the anniversary. I had been incubating in a self-centred shell of nothingness, making tiny wailing squeaks and listening to them echo back at me, ashamed of my own pitiful sounds. I was unemployed, having quit my job a few months prior when my mom was diagnosed with stage four cancer.
After my Oma died, I had, what I saw, as the most elementary reaction to her death. It was as if I realized that things die for the first time. I found this embarrassing. Had I really been so naive before?
But death festooned me with its tentacles in a way that I didn’t expect. I started to consider, with a vaulted fixation, the blatant reality that all lives end. I’d stare at a teenage daughter laughing while her father tried to take a picture with his new iPhone, and think “He’s going to die one day, and she’ll be lopped off at the ankles”. I chewed on my mom’s admission of missing her father more and more as time went by. I singed my psyche on visions of my future self, forced to live without my own dad, and saw myself relegated to wandering shapelessly.
It seemed to me that my mom had raised me, and that without her one day, I would fend. But it didn’t feel as though my dad had raised me. He’d always just been a soul companion, reverberating beside me to the same inaudible beat. We winced at the same inflection in a word, pricked our ears at the same breath inhaled too sharply, and felt mini wisps of air shift identically around us in response to someone’s tilted head or inclined shoulder. We read the room’s weather together, raising our umbrellas to a protective click in the exact same moment. Ours was not an improv troupe, one reacting to the other. We were the corps de ballet, our every step, turn, and gaze executed in time with a metronome that we did not hear, but knew was our shared pulse.
During the time when I failed to commemorate my Oma’s death, I found myself planning to bake a cake. I romanticized the idea of coming out of this dark, meandering period with an arsenal of recipes in my coffers. Joyful nourishment that I could serve to anyone who questioned what I’d done with my wasted free time.
I pulled out “German Baking”, a creamy testament to the importance of baked goods in Austrian and German culture. It contained detailed descriptions of sheet cakes, which, it explained, were not considered a dessert, but rather a respectable form of sustenance. A position my dad and I had been taking for years.
As a kid I was encouraged to put meat on my bones and stuffed my face with the low sheet cakes my Oma made. The fear that a skinny child struck in the hearts of those who had lived through the war on their own soil had not abated. My Oma’s refrain, offered from the side of her mouth without lifting her eyes from the stove, was “Geh, iss dass was wird aus dir!” Eat up so you grow into something! She repeated it well into my adulthood and would chuckle at her own joke: I had grown to be 5’ 11”.
My brother and I grew up with sugar close at hand in Vienna, and nobody but my Canadian mom seemed to think this was a problem. She pulled the sound straight out of our throats whenever she informed us that she had shoved a bag of chocolate directly into the garbage. The garbage! We recoiled. Children and chocolate were a blessed pairing, we had been taught.
In the afternoons, or while playing cards after dinner, Oma would lay her palms flat on her lap, fingers slightly spread for balance, head darting between the two of us seated on either side of her, and ask “Wollts naschen?” Wanna feast? She said it with a glint in her eye and that tiny glob of pressure at the back of the throat that comes from knowing you’ve played to your audience.
In response to our raucous “Ja! Ja!”, she would let out a steep arc of rounded giggles, slap her thighs once in triumph, and exclaim: “Tua ma naschen!”
Making her way to her knees in front of the heaving credenza, and up again through loud winces, she would deliver an armful of sweets she’d arranged in a tower of packages pressed between her chin and forearms. A good portion had been gifted to her - sugar was passed around the way other cultures trade wine or flowers. Her green tablecloth wrinkled as piles of purple Milka bars, marzipan logs, and cherry liqueur filled chocolates fell from her arms.
Having tried the latest chocolates was a valid conversation topic. If one wasn’t familiar with a new item, it followed that it must be tried. She always preferred the cherry liqueur ones, and thought it showed a strong lack of judgment on our part, for not savouring the bitter filling. “Oh don’t be so precious!”, she would guffaw at us. We’d squeal, sparking at the sight of our Oma acting like a child, her tone that of an equal.
She was telling us in one breath that we were idiots for not liking her cherry chocolates, but also, that we were spoiled for not liking all the treats, because she’d grown up hungry. We knew that behind her capricious dismissal of us was a real sense of disconnect from kids these days. We occupied a space of choice that she had only been able to look in on, until very recently. With us, she was both a child who had been waiting a lifetime to take her pick from a heap of chocolates, and a woman who had been waiting just as long to state a preference - any preference. And so, we three children were now trading candy as our identity currency.
Oma had often regaled us with visions of how she would wave at us from a cloud once she was gone. And yet on her deathbed, she questioned whether she had been a good person. We scoffed, as much as one can scoff at a person breathing a death rattle. We wanted to make her know the absurdity of her question, but a recitation of her life’s kindnesses and sacrifices felt echoey. Her service to others hadn’t been a connect-the-dots of identifiable gestures. Hers had been a humming, plodding servitude to all those who hung on her gallery wall, and beyond.
The week before she died, she had been knitting a pair of slippers for my husband, through aching fingers. Her neighbour had begged her to stop, reminding her that our generation doesn’t wear Schlapfen. She paid no mind. She wanted to finish them in time for our visit in a few weeks. I flew over early to see her, and from her hospital bed, she made me promise that I would finish them. I promised, and yet a year later, I still hadn’t done it.
And for some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to light a red candle. Why? Was it because we had spent years arguing about the afterlife? When she lamented that they’d put my uncle “in a can” after he was cremated, I pushed back, demanding to know why it mattered, if he was in heaven. I didn’t believe in God. She did.
Eulogies aren’t read in Austria - it isn’t the socialist, collectivist way. The reading of the same Bible verses is considered sufficient for each individual, no matter their life. But my Oma had questioned her God, with a childlike disappointment. How could her aunts pray daily, and yet watch, unmoved, as she begged them for food? How could her mother pledge religious allegiance to her father, as he beat her? Why had her last name been reason enough for the village teacher to deny her library books?
At her funeral, the Bible verses felt like an erasure of what life had inflicted on her. A figure unknown, I stood up beside the priest, as he shuffled aside to make room for me in front of the coffin. I recited her pain, plainly. She had never been pious about her own suffering, and if she could pick it up and examine it up close, so could we. Afterwards, her friends wondered aloud to each other as they passed me in the receiving line: “How could little Gisi have had such a tall granddaughter?”
Once I returned home, I wanted desperately to dream of her. I would think of her as I fell asleep, hoping to meet her in the night. I wanted to be in her presence again, the way we had been in her tiny apartment for so many hours.
I would wake sometimes in the night and wonder if I would see her standing in my room, looking at me. This fascinated me. How could I, the person who needed to wash her face with her eyes open after seeing a horror movie, hope to see her dead grandmother standing in her room?
Finally, she appeared in a dream: we were on a street corner on a hot, humid night, watching hordes of young people flock to an amusement park across the street. She looked about ten years younger than when she had died, at 97. She was wearing her brown cotton pants, but paired with a bright, sequin bomber jacket. She was holding onto my forearm, as she had often done, her mouth slightly ajar, eyes dancing underneath her wrinkled eyelids. Watching the crowd across the street, she murmured something about all the young men, and I experienced her as a woman who had been robbed of the freewheeling, breathless carousel of anticipation of a night out, where the possibility that anything could happen swirls around you in intoxicating gusts.
I woke up wondering if she had come to me. Was she in heaven? Was my Oma’s heaven a place where she could laugh freely and wear sequins and flirt with boys? Free from the war, and paternal abuse, and hunger, and brothers killed on the Russian front, and fighting to hang on to even the bottom rung of the class ladder? Was she finally released from baking one-inch sheet cakes, and taking flowers to graves, and wearing black in mourning, and being dismissed for being common, short, and poor?
I didn’t dream about her for a long time after that. And the longer she stayed away, the more I became convinced that she had sent me a message - that she was having the time of her death. That she was okay on her cloud. That the shame and fear and contempt that had coloured in the edges of her life, were over.