Moving House

This is a picture of my grandmother on my dad's side. Her name was Elisabeth Marie Löwensen Burns and if the baby I'm carrying had turned out to be a girl, her middle name was going to be Elisabeth. She mostly went by Betty, but we all called her Omi, which is the familiar form of Oma, the German for grandmother. When I was very little, I twisted three pipecleaners into an O, an M, and an I, and painted each one a different color. She hung them on the wall in her living room and they were still there every time I went back to visit, right up until the last time I was in her flat.

She was born on July 14th, 1926 and she died on April 23rd, 2013, which was just a couple of days ago. She was 86, so it wasn't a huge shock. She slipped away in her sleep, which is the most peaceful way to go. These facts bring comfort, but they don't quite ease the crushing finality of it, the fact that she's gone. When my cat Charlie died, the thing I missed most desperately at first was the weight of him, the heft of him on my lap; at my lowest point, I piled a few heavy blankets on top of myself and pretended it was him. The first thing I missed about Omi was her handwriting, the loop and curve of it, how she'd scratch out thirteen kisses after her name in birthday cards because thirteen was her lucky number. I scoured my desk drawers in case I'd kept a leftover note from her. I pawed through the books she'd given me, hoping she'd made an inscription in one of them. My heart leapt to see writing on a flyleaf, then plummeted when I realized it wasn't hers. It was made out to "darling Toot" and signed "Rabbit." She must have bought it secondhand.

A lot of my memories of her are food-related: the toffees she'd keep in her handbag when we were little and cut in half for us, how she'd make us give the wrapper to her afterwards so she'd be sure it was thrown away. When I was older, she'd sneak up behind me and throw a handful over my head when I was doing my homework, then profess innocence when I looked up laughing and asked where they'd come from. I remember the way she diced carrots in perfect little circles before she cooked them, the warm rolls we'd slather with butter and marmalade for breakfast, the potatoes she fried in a recreation of the bratkartoffeln she'd grown up eating. She called the fruit Polos she doled out to us "power sweets" and we called the custard creams she always had in the biscuit tin "Omi biscuits." When she picked me up from school, she always had a cheese sandwich for me in her bag and it was always wrapped in wax paper. She kept Kia-Ora orange squash in a low kitchen cupboard and tap water in an old vodka bottle in the fridge. The first time she pulled it out and poured it into glasses for us, my brother Tom's eyes grew round as dinner plates. "Omi!" he shouted. "No! That's vodka!"

She was the first person to see me when I was born—before my mother, even, who was under heavy anaesthetic—and she said "yes, that'll do very nicely" when she did. She took us to Thorpe Park every summer, and once we made her go on a crazy, whirling, looping ride, and afterwards she had to have a lie-down on the grass in her sensible coat. She had real candles on her Christmas trees and an endless supply of drawing paper in a turquoise Croxley box she kept in the hall cupboard. She played a made-up game with us called "Mrs Flounders" that involved hiding under the table in her living room; one of us would be Mrs Flounders and the rest of us—even her, in her stocking feet—would duck under the tablecloth for tea. For a short time, she drove a bright orange MG, and for a long time after that, a red VW Polo. Anytime she took you somewhere, you had to build in an extra 15 minutes for her to change into her driving shoes and have half a cigarette. She always waved to you from the balcony when you left. 

She came to England from Germany in 1947, raised two boys and a girl, once took my dad on a vacation where they drove their car onto a plane. She wore her hair in a style we called a topknot before topknots were something you saw on Pinterest, and every time she walked us into town, we'd go through a tunnel where she'd call out "oh-oh!" just to hear the echo. She'd pick me up from school on Fridays and take me straight to the library and let me check out as many books as I wanted, then she'd drive me home and we'd watch Blind Date and the Antiques Roadshow and the Eastenders omnibus on her couch. She made me speak German with her for entire afternoons to make sure I got enough practice for my German A-levels, and she kept making me do it even when I sulked. I called her once from the airport when I was in my early 20s, a teary mess after dropping Sean off, and asked if it would be okay if I caught the train to her house. She had guests in from out of town, but she didn't even hesitate. "Of course," she said. "Come right over. You're my granddaughter." 

I have been making tentative plans to go to the funeral in England in the next couple of weeks. It is money I wasn't planning on spending and time I wasn't planning on taking off work and a 12-hour flight I wasn't planning on doing at 28 weeks pregnant—though my doctor has said that it's fine—but this is the thing: I can't not go. I would regret not going. "Weddings if you can," a friend of my mother's once said. "Funerals, always." 

The night before we found out she'd died, my brother Luke—who swears that nothing like this ever happens to him—had a dream that all six of us in my family were moving her into a new house. "It was very quiet and calm and comfortable," he wrote, "and while we were all nervous and scrabbling with each other to organize her new home, she sat in a chair to the side and just chatted and laughed with all of us."  

I miss her horribly, and I can't imagine not missing her every day, but it helps a lot to think of it like that. She just moved house. She's somewhere else. That's all it is. 

Apr 30, 2013

I miss my Granny everyday and it's been 10 years. Your tribute to your Omi makes me smile and I know it makes your family smile, too, even if it is through tears. Talk about her often. Share your life with her. She is watching. Hugs, Holly.

Apr 30, 2013

The beauty and weight of your words is astounding. My thoughts are with your family.

Julie in NC
Apr 30, 2013

Such a lovely, thoughtful tribute to your Omi... sounds like she was a real treasure of a grandmother. Thinking of you and your family.

Paris Doran
Apr 30, 2013

This made me cry at work. I really relate to this and a little bit can't believe it. My Oma's name was Elisabeth too and it is my middle name. (Actually my first name is Paris-Elisabeth with a hyphen but that's another story). My Oma passed away on Christmas Day in 2004 and all I could think of is how many stories there are of me being such a terror to her as a toddler when she always looked after me and that she used to iron my socks and underwear, which I thought was ridiculous. I still miss her and I wish I knew her as well as you knew your Omi.
You'll always have those memories.

May 01, 2013

Such beautiful words for someone who was clearly such a beautiful soul. Thoughts of love and condolences for you and your family.

May 01, 2013

I'm very sorry to hear about your Omi's passing. I hope you and your family find comfort in warm memories.

May 02, 2013

I am so sorry for your loss.
You couldn't have written anything more beautiful.

May 08, 2013

What a beautiful post! I'm so sorry for your loss, but thank you for sharing such wonderful memories of a lovely woman. It's never easy, but having those memories will help. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.

Camels & Chocolate
May 12, 2013

This seriously made me cry, as it reminded me so much of my grandfather who died in December at 91 and my grandmother who also died at 86 in 2008. When my mom and I were cleaning out their suite in my parents' house a couple months ago, I came across a stack of my grandmother's loopy cursive writing in cards she had written to my Granddad that he had no doubt saved as a piece of her.

Sensibly sassy
May 21, 2013

I'm so sorry for your loss-she sounds like she was such a wonderful person to know and love

Jun 26, 2013

Wow, you sure have a way with words. You painted a picture of her that made me feel like I knew her..I wish I had! So sorry for your loss!

Sep 29, 2013

Hi Holly, I've just found your Blog by chance (better to say a because of a certain search word: Marie Löwensen) and read your memories of your Omi. We knew her in my Family as Tante Betty, as her father (Heinrich) and my grandfather were Brothers; your Omi and my mother were Cousins, your ururgroßvater was my urgroßvater.... To come to the Point: just wanted to send a farfamiliar hello from the far away Hannover, wishing you and your Family the very best, lgkristina

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