This is my tribute to my maternal grandmother (Oma), Annemarie Beck Nordstrom, from her funeral on December 28, 2018.
Born March 10, 1940 in what was then Yugoslavia, Oma’s family was taken to a concentration camp during World War II. Her father Hans was fluent in 24 languages, and served as a linguist in the Civil Service prior to the War. Their family spent 7 years in the camp before being liberated by the Red Cross, well after the War ended.
Oma immigrated to the United States in 1956, and later met my Opa, Nels Nordstrom. Before long, they started a family, and Oma became a US citizen.
She was one of the strongest people I’ve ever known, as well as one of my best friends.
“London Bridge is Down.” This is the phrase that will be broadcast from the United Kingdom, over the BBC, and heard the world over when Queen Elizabeth II passes away. At her current age of 92, her passing will mark a monumental event for every citizen of her Empire, nearly every one of whom has never known a day without her reign.
It’s a comparison I like to make: my Oma and the Queen.
We spent many days together this past summer, surveying the health of her backyard kingdom. Enjoying the warmth and sunlight, we sat together on the back porch; often me reading a yoga book, Oma lounging with her feet up in the special chair I eventually came to refer to as her Throne.
Oma would turn to me and deliver her daily report on the resident tree squirrels as they haggled over birdseed and leapt to avoid Polly and Toodles, our two dogs who stood guard, resolute at the side of their sovereign.
She sometimes commented on her thinning hair, and that all she had left were “5 hair” to cover her head. And so at the height of Summer, as the Sun beamed down on us, I suggested she start a collection of elegant, wide-brimmed hats to protect her scalp and face from the Sun’s amber waves. A collection, of course, modeled after the Queen’s.
In many ways, my relationship with Oma was a prime example of the continuity of life: that due to circumstance, fortune, choice, age, and our complimentary stages of life, we were often exactly what and whom the other one needed.
Whether it was a partner for family game night, someone to gossip with over brunch, or a friend to exchange a grin and a wink with over our own acknowledged foibles, Oma and I were confederates from beginning to end.
When I was young she took me to Panda Express so that I could have chow mein, and when she was old I took her to Pizza Ranch so that she could have bread. When I was young I’d make us watch Disney’s Robinhood, and when she was old she’d make us watch Swamp People. When I was young, she saw me start to walk and of course fall, and when she was old I saw her stop walking and sometimes fall.
It’s one of the things that I value most: that we were there to see and to witness, for our good days and the bad.
Oma and I shared many inside jokes, including that she’d outlived yet another person each time we’d hear of a celebrity’s passing. The intent wasn’t to disparage the celebrity, or to revel in their passing. Instead, the humor was in pointing out just how resilient (and down right hard to kill) she was. Nothing could take down my Oma.
Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in his book Man’s Search For Meaning that a person can get used to almost anything, that nearly any degree of suffering can come to feel normal. He wrote these words in reference to his experience as a Jewish prisoner during WWII, and to a type of suffering Oma had also learned a bit about early in life.
But I think the same can be said–that it can become normal–about magnificent feats of service and handiwork done for others.
Oma’s life was so full of service, that to me, it just felt normal. I was awakened many times–almost daily–this past year by the sound of her sewing machine motoring away in the work room above my head. It was the sound of business as usual: that regardless of how stiff her back, swollen her feet, sore her fingers, short her breath, or sour her mood, Oma was still hard at work, in the service of others.
The thousands of hours spent creating clothes, Halloween costumes, drapes and curtains, wedding quilts, Christmas sweaters, winter blankets, doilies, beanies for pre-mature babies, place mats, cross-stitch…always for others.
Yet despite her great works, a handful of times she mentioned having little to show for herself after a lifetime. While the heirs of some made time to squabble over worldly possessions left behind by their parents and grandparents, Oma noted to me—in jest and with a sly smile—that she had little to leave behind for my sister and I to fight over. No royal artifacts, no family estate, no Crown Jewels.
“Well you’d better get to work,” I replied. “There’s still time!”
Many of us here have received at least one, if not a handful of Oma’s great masterworks over our lives. Even Dove, my new puppy, is the beneficiary of Oma’s love and the recipient of her comfort, through a blanket she finished sewing just days before she passed.
A friend of mine once commented on a blanket Oma had crocheted entirely by hand, remarking that the spacing and evenness of the yarn was so phenomenal, that the blanket itself was like a piece of fine jewelry. Until then, I don’t think I’d ever taken the time to truly appreciate the flawless creation my Oma had brought into existence, one flick of the wrist at a time.
But my friend was right. The next time I saw Oma, I told her what an amazing job she’d done on this blanket in particular. She just clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and waved away the compliment. “You can have it,” she said.
Who knows how many blankets of equal caliber Oma had produced by that time? Certainly, they were without number. And just like that, at the dictate of the Queen, the jewel was mine. For her, it was perfectly normal. Both the creative act and the decision to give without reservation were something she’d become accustomed to.
This is what she leaves us. A legacy of love and service, and a generosity with time and talent. Nothing too fabulous, or extravagant as an Empire, but priceless just the same.
Oma had many phrases that as a family we came to associate with her. Maxims that she’d repeat time and time again. One that has stuck with me for my entire life is that “Tomorrow is another day.”
When I was a young boy and I didn’t want to go to sleep because there were video games to play and books to read, she would come in and tell me, “Tomorrow is another day.” And when I was a young man growing up gay in the Mormon church, and I didn’t want to wake up in the morning, I would tell myself, “Tomorrow is another day.”
Thank you all for being here today. I know we all have had a special relationship or friendship with Oma, and we all have something that she’s left with us and that we can take with us. Tomorrow is another day.
- Episode 15 of You Got Thirty: a very nice podcast for very busy people is also dedicated to Oma. Listen here.