Thursday, December 11, 2008

Oma's Story

My  mother is now mostly known as Oma, the German word for Grandma.  Here is a bit of her story.  I hope there will be more to come.

Oma was born in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1941, the youngest of three children. I get the sense that she admired her older brother and sister, but also that she enjoyed the indulgent attention she received as the baby of the family. At a time when little German girls wore knee socks and flowered dresses with matching aprons, Oma preferred Lederhosen. She exasperated her mother by balancing on the high wall that separated their courtyard from the schoolyard next door, and shocked her aunts by whistling "like a boy."

Heidelberg is an ancient city built of red sandstone nestled in the crook where the vast, flat stretches of the Rhine River valley meet the thickly forested hills of the Odenwald. Roads that were first cleared by the Romans are still in use today, and a medieval stone castle stands on the side of a hill overlooking the city (photo). The house where Oma grew up, on the Fahrtgasse, was a stone building on a narrow street in the center of the town (kind of like this one).  Ingrid's father, Paul, was a cobbler, and his shop was on the ground floor, facing the street. A sally-port led to the small courtyard in the back of the shop, surrounded on three sides by houses and on the fourth by the wall of the schoolyard next door.  A staircase led from the courtyard with its small, raised garden area, to the second floor apartment.  The residents had to leave the apartment and cross an exterior balcony to reach the tiny bathroom with its pull-chain, raised-tank toilet.

It's fitting, in a way, that the house on the Fahrtgasse was eventually torn down to make way for a municipal swimming pool because water and swimming weave through the story of Oma's childhood.  In those days, the Neckar river, which cuts a sharp valley through the Odenwald and also cuts through the city of Heidelberg, was an integral part of life in the city, a major conduit of commerce and a source of livelihood, recreation, and danger -- the high-water marks of the Neckar are still visible on the oldest buildings.  As a child, Oma followed the older children down the street to swim in the Neckar.  Her older brother, Klaus, would swim with her on his back.  When she was five, she swam across the Neckar by herself the first time.  The Neckar is as wide as a football field is long, and deep and swift enough to carry barges laden with timber.  Later, she joined in the games of daring the children played: grabbing the side of a low-lying barge to get towed upstream, swimming under a barge, underwater from one side to the other, or climbing over the high railing of the bridge to jump the 20 feet or so into the river. 


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