Christmas without Grandma


This past year I lost both of my grandmothers.

The first Christmas without them is frankly miserable.

It is grandmothers who really help hold families together. They were the last generation to fully embrace what women today would consider to be “old-fashioned” ways of viewing the world and their place in it. Clara’s and Ida’s primary vocations, as was to be expected from their generation, were wives and stay-at-home mothers, also known as “homemakers.” My paternal grandmother lived to be 104 years old, and my maternal grandmother lived to be 96 years old.

“Omi,” the German name for grandmother, is what my father’s mother preferred to be called by all her 11 grandchildren and step-grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren, and five great-great grandchildren. As most people don’t speak German, it was a polite way to let her age gracefully over the years.

Overall, both grandmother’s personalities were usually graceful and pleasant. So, during the holidays, they were even more gracious and giving. They were socially engineered to play the role of ‘hostess” at most social gatherings. They swore rarely, and if you swore around them, you felt like a bolt of lightning might strike you where you stood.

Both grandmothers seemed to be content to be presences in the background, somewhat sidelined as it were, to the action of life. To engage themselves, they became deeply embedded in their children and grandchildren’s lives, seeing that they were fed and clothed to the best of their financial abilities, that their extracurricular activity calendars were full, and took up activities in various charities related to school, children, church, and social causes. They were often the gentle and experienced hand to reach into situations and fix family problems. So far was their reach and power within the family, that in some cases when they made mistakes, they were attributed with nearly unimaginable powers, like the ability to cause their children to divorce, or not marry, and other major life disruptions. In reality, they were simply involved in situations with multiple causes. But because they were the family members to whom everyone turned to fix life’s problems, when they couldn’t, which was rare, my grandmas seemed to bear the brunt of family member’s negativity and inability to cope with their own shortcomings.

My maternal grandmother held onto me tightly. Most would say, too tightly. From the time I was a baby she was in love, much to the chagrin of my parents. Spoiled and doted on, my grandmother made me feel special in life, particularly when others didn’t. After my parents’ divorce, my sister and I lived with her in what was supposed to be a temporary situation. I remember Christmas dinners cooked and served by her at the formal dining room table, usually a roast turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, green beans, and special sweet potato pie with marshmallows that was my favorite part of Christmas dinner. Like most grandmothers, she had a secret recipe that everyone wanted. Friends and acquaintances often asked her to make them her potato salad, one even encouraged her to market it. These large, sit-down holiday feasts made Christmas, “Christmas!” Every year we also put out the 6-foot artificial tree and decorated it as a family. On Christmas morning my sister and I were greeted with wrapped boxes (which after a few years we figured out would be clothing), and lots of unwrapped toys from Santa. I can’t remember a Christmas in my youth that there weren’t so many toys I had no idea what to do with them all. Perhaps the most memorable toys were ones that were too big to fit under the tree. My sister and I received two giant stuffed dogs, almost as big as we were. Once I came across an old black and white photo in the family pictures, and my grandparents had provided my mother and her brother an equal abundance of gifts.

Meanwhile, my paternal grandmother, as a well-off, twice-widowed woman, sent me lavish gifts at the holidays. Due to my parent’s divorce, my relationship with her was not as close as it otherwise would have been. As a young child, I recall receiving wonderful toys from her, like a Steiff Jolly Raggy Racoon Puppet, which I saw a used one recently advertised on eBay for $75. It was an expensive toy I enjoyed but was one that as a child I could not fully understand its financial value compared with other toys. One Christmas she sent a beautiful black embroidered winter coat from Jacobson’s, a regional luxury department store chain. Unfortunately, it was too small and the nearest store too far to drive to exchange it, so I enjoyed looking at it, but never wore it. Most years after that she sent a more useful gift, a dependable check usually for the same amount each year during the holidays.

My maternal grandfather died when he was relatively young, making my grandmother a widow who never remarried. The years went by, and my mother and sister eventually moved away. As a teen, I chose to stay in the school system where I grew up until graduation with my grandma who had raised me. I was part of a non-traditional family, but grateful I could rely on my grandmother and that she was agreeable to take on the added responsibility to provide me with continuity, stability, and love, in my early life. Through my twenties and thirties, my grandmothers were always there for me, and I enjoyed spending time with them as an adult, perhaps even more than when a child.

My paternal grandma was there financially, arguably more than my own father, to help me when I overspent on my credit cards and provided me with a very generous gift to have enough cash as I studied abroad. She also provided the same amount to my sister when she married to help her new life begin well. A huge family gathering occurred celebrating her 100th birthday, with some guests even flying in from Germany. She had been a champion ballroom dancer, and her athleticism showed, because even at 100, she was ambulatory with a cane, though her eyesight had diminished.

My maternal grandmother was always there to return “home” to, between moving around for different opportunities like university degrees and jobs. We enjoyed taking trips together and, if any person was, she was just the foundation to my very being.

As my maternal grandmother aged, she developed dementia and Alzheimer’s. I took on the role of caregiver as she had done for me. Toward the end, while she did not remember my name most days, I remembered what she had done for me.

Since the loss of my grandmothers a few months ago, both sides of my family seem to be falling apart, going our separate ways, in anger. Perhaps, only in their loss can we appreciate the amazing job they did keeping us together, until now.

By Shannon Bohle

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