Everything was sliding down my face. I didn’t wipe my tears away. I wanted to feel.
Music was powerful in those days, in those days of moving forward so slowly I wondered if I had made any progress at all. Any song with meaningful lyrics, melody that swept you up in its beauty, hurt. Top forty was all I could handle and in the year of 1999, thankfully, there wasn’t much that was powerful or moving hanging out there.
This day was different. This day I was swallowed up by music, the radio ambushing me on a Monday, playing music that made me want to forget. I let each note turn into an aching so deep I didn’t know if I could bounce back.
I liked the way it sounded, but I wasn’t so sure that I was capable of bouncing back from anything. My restoration was sloth-like in nature, inching its way toward freedom, although I didn’t know what freedom would look like if I got there. Would I recognize it when I saw it? Would I wake up one morning, home-free, or would it sneak up on me unshackling me a little at a time until I was lighter, happier, the gap between me and the crash wide enough that I could leave it behind? I suspected it would be the latter.
I sat up straight in my chair as I cried. I sat up straight most of the time, a leftover habit from childhood. Even if there was a hint of my shoulders slouching, my mom was chiding, “Sit up straight, Heidi. Do you want a back like your Oma’s?”
My Oma, Lena, had a hunched back, curling into herself from all the years of hard labor she endured living in Russia taking care of her four siblings after their mom died. It was 1930 and she became cook, cleaner and caretaker at fifteen, her father too deep into drinking to care for his family. The hunch of her back was aggravated by broken ribs that were never tended to. She was too busy as a surrogate mother to look after herself and there was no one to help her. Two years later she was packing up their family and fleeing to Germany during Stalin’s regime. They traveled through Germany to settle in Chaco, Paraguay. This was where the information became sparse. My mom said Oma rarely spoke of that dangerous journey and when she did she wasn’t forthcoming with details. Oma clammed up and retreated when it was brought up. Something had happened, but no one knew what. What mattered to her was that she arrived in Paraguay where she met her husband, my Opa, Wilhelm, and began her new life and family.
My mom was quick to point out where my Oma got her back from, and she impressed upon me how important a straight back was. My Oma had little schooling before she was needed at home. She was the only girl and her responsibilities lay there. When she married at nineteen, my Opa taught her how to read. “Your Oma told me to be honest. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Don’t cheat. And sit up straight.” My mom told me that advice was the best education her mom gave her.
Whenever I visited my Oma, my brothers and I were treated to chocolate and after I had eaten mine I would lay next to Oma, on her floral patterned sofa, my head on her lap. Her spotted, worn hands softly rubbed my back. “Schmuck, schmuck,” she said. Pretty, pretty in German. She said these same words to when I moved from girlhood to adulthood. She was living with dementia, in a care home, the back of her hand feather light moving back and forth across my cheek, as I sat at the edge of her bed. She was far away into her past and didn’t recognize us anymore, but that didn’t matter to me as she murmured words from my childhood and I remembered how it felt to have her hands on my back. She passed away not long after that visit.
My mom was right. My Oma’s lessons were something to live by. Through Oma, to my mom, for me, sitting up straight was to have pride, take care of yourself and know who you are. Remember where you’ve come from. Remember who you are. That day I curled into myself like my Oma’s back, and wept. Remember where you’ve come from, remember who you are.