Oma and I spent our days in the same house in a sloppy exchange of Swabian dialect and Californian English. To the amusement of my sister-in-laws, I unwittingly picked up Omas dialect when I said “cow” and “trash can”.
She taught me the German names of all the plants and flowers in our garden. Oma impatiently pointed out the weeds with her cane as I plucked and trimmed them on my knees.
She showed me how to tie a homemade pretzel and to make a delicious Apfelkuchen. She was constantly cooking and baking, nearly burning down the house twice in the process.
Although she could be pushy and stubborn with others, Oma and I always maintained a polite relationship. At first she was quite annoyed that I had arrived in Salzburg without knowing one word of German, but as my German skills began to grow, her impatience with me began to lessen.
When she got sick, I became her caretaker. One day, we went to the doctor where I quickly got her a seat in the waiting room to ease her aching feet. She had put on stiff, barely used orthopedic shoes in place of her big, comfortable Nikes. I approached the receptionist who told me politely that Oma needed to give a "Harnprobe", which is German for "urine sample".
I hesitated, knowing that my American tongue was not trained in the acrobatics necessary to roll my “r” ( just slightly) to say the word “Harnprobe”. Past experience told me that Oma was not going to make it easy for me, either. I asked the receptionist to repeat herself, and turned to the very crowded, quiet waiting room.
“HARNprobe, Harrrrnprobe, Harn...”, I practiced quietly under my breath. I slowly walked over to Oma, praying that she would understand me. Everything was black or white with her, either I say exactly the right word or else I was just speaking jibberish. She made no cultural or linguistic considerations for me.
“Oma, du muss ein Harnprobe machen” I said. To my great pride and relief, I had pronounced it beautifully; it didn’t sound like I was rolling a potato in my mouth!
Still, Oma hadn’t heard me. “EIN WAS? EIN HAHN?” She said loudly. I heard someone in the waiting room giggle. I quickly replied “Ja Oma, ein HAHN (a rooster!). The blood rushed to my face. I couldn’t take it back now, the word was just looming there in the room, loud and all wrong.
She crinkled her nose, her eyes narrowed like she could just barely comprehend me. "Ein HAHN?” People were looking at us, trying not to laugh.
I decided to get it all over with as quickly as possible. I formed my hand into the shape of a cup, pointed to the inside, looked her deep in her eyes, and said loudly “PEE PEE IN THE CUP, OMA!” To my great relief, she simply stood up and shuffled in her squeaky orthopedic shoes to the toilets.
Oma and I continued to limp through countless embarrassing and humbling situations. She taught me to be patient and instilled in me a strong perseverance to learn German that no language course in the world could ever have accomplished. In any language, Oma will always be a part of my story.
© Marie Motil 2019-11-21