I learned one of the hard truths about the working world in 2005, my first year out of college: most employers don’t give you three weeks off for Christmas.
I worked a night copy-editing shift in a small North Bay newspaper, coming in at 2 p.m., dragging home at 2 a.m. Official policy gave me one day off for Christmas. Most of my co-workers had to travel only as far as Sacramento to get to family, but my clan was in Berne, Switzerland.
My mother worked for the U.S. State Department at the U.S. Embassy in Berne. My divorced father, normally stationed in Washington, D.C., was in Europe for business, so he would be there for Christmas as well. My younger sister and brother—both enjoying extended monthlong holiday vacations from their respective colleges—were already in Berne with Mom.
The newspaper was short-staffed over the holidays and I was the low man on the totem pole, so I had a fat chance of taking any more time off.
I heard the disappointment in Mom’s voice when I told her I wouldn’t make it home for Christmas.
“Oma’s not doing so well,” she said.
Oma was my grandmother and we had always called her by this German familiar term. All her life, she had been a loud woman. She grew up in Germany during World War II. As the war raged throughout Europe, she had only one concern: playing the fiddle. She traveled Europe with an orchestra, paying little mind to the chaos around her, focused only on music. (In later years, she denied that she’d even noticed the war raging around her.) She claimed that toward the end of the war, with the allied forces advancing on Germany, she received orders from the government that she should report to the nearest military post to help man anti-aircraft guns. She didn’t like that. She raised a fuss at the Arbeitsministry, refusing to participate in anything that would take time out of her music. No one knew what to do with her—under the authoritarian Nazi regime, hardly anyone ever dared complain when the government sent out an order. She went from supervisor to supervisor until, as the story goes, she ended up in the office of Joseph Goebbels.
Supposedly, he found her ire amusing enough to overrule the order.
When Germany fell, Oma fled from Berlin to Kaufbeuern, a small farming village in Bavaria, where she hoped to stay with a cousin. She met my grandfather, my Opa, in this small town, where the U.S. Army stationed him. He led the effort to rebuild the local school, hiring her as its first teacher. After a year, he returned to the United States, but they continued to exchange letters. After another year, he arranged for Oma to follow him to the States, where they married and she became a naturalized citizen.
She was an opinionated Nazi-era German schoolteacher. He was a phlegmatic Jewish-American GI. They made an odd couple, but loved each other for 50 years. Eventually, Opa’s hearing weakened, while Oma’s vision faltered; for years, he was her eyes, she was his ears.
When Opa died, Oma suddenly felt her age. Without him, she was suddenly lost and adrift and very fragile. My mother, afraid of leaving her alone in the U.S., brought her to Switzerland. Oma was still loud when she got excited, but her outbursts were punctuated by increasing bouts of silence. Because of her poor vision, she couldn’t read musical notation anymore. She spent most of her time when my mother was at work listening to tapes of Mozart concertos and Wagner operas.
Mom didn’t say it, but I knew what her words meant: This might be Oma’s last Christmas.
And so I decided to go to Berne anyway. I calculated that, with my usual odd weekend hours and the Christmas holiday, I would have three days to complete the trip. With all the time spent en route, I would actually be in Switzerland for less than a day. I’d arrive Christmas morning and leave before dawn the next day. It was, all in all, a supremely stupid idea, so stupid that I knew if I told anyone I was coming they would tell me not to. So instead I would just show up at Mom’s doorstep on Christmas morning as a brilliant Christmas surprise. Maybe I’d even buy a Santa hat for that extra schmaltzy holiday look.
I’d saved up some money that I’d planned to use to see my family during the summer, when I could take a longer vacation, but suddenly it seemed urgent that I get there now. Everyone else had the same idea. The airports were mobbed, as they always are around Christmas. I switched planes at LAX, learning too late why that airport is dreaded above all others by holiday travelers. I fumed as I took off on a 16-hour flight across the Atlantic, always acutely aware of how ridiculous this whole trip was.
I finally touched land in Zurich at 5 a.m. local time, and then hopped a train to Berne. When I arrived at Berne central station, it was deserted because everyone was already home this Christmas morning. Luckily, I could walk. The cold was a shock after California, and the air froze in my lungs. I trudged through the fallen snow, dragging my suitcase, until I found my mother’s apartment building, where I buzzed her on the intercom and waited.
“Hello? Who’s that?” came a groggy voice.
“It’s me,” I said.
“Mike? What?” There were some other cries of confusion in the background.
“It’s Mikey? Mikey!” I heard Oma’s voice. Then a door flew open at the top of the stairs and they all came tumbling out.
“You made it,” cried Oma, wrapping me in her arms, “We’re all here!”
I’d forgotten the Santa hat plan, but things seemed celebratory enough.
The day passed in a haze, since I was still on California time. In the evening, we went to a performance of Handel’s Messiah at a local church. I passed out halfway through, succumbing to jet lag, waking only when the audience erupted into applause at the concert’s finale.
I’m a musical philistine, but Oma liked it. As we left the church, the sky looked an icy gray. Snow fell in a fine mist and filled the gutters with wet piles of slush, but Oma couldn’t stop fidgeting. She grabbed my sister’s arm and tried to initiate a skipping dance through the snow.
“Everyone is here!” she said, “Let’s dance!”
“Oma, calm down,” said my sister.
“No,” said Oma, “I don’t want to calm down. I want to hop, hop, hop until I’m dead!”
Happily, that wasn’t Oma’s last Christmas; I saw her several more times, and spent much more time with her after that. But when she died last March, I didn’t remember her as the woman who quietly listened to Mozart tapes in a corner. I remembered a one-day trip across the world, a Christmas with the family and a woman who never wanted to stop hopping while she had life yet.
Mike Rosen-Molina is an East Bay writer and frequent contributor to The Monthly. His work has also appeared in the East Bay Express, Davis Enterprise and Sacramento News and Review.
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