How to divide an undividable sky? If I ask Oma, my former mother-in-law, she will know. She escaped Stalin’s power in the back of a wagon pulled by the family’s last milk cow. Driven by the man she would one day marry. Leaving behind everything, including her older brother, Johan, who had been taken in the night by the Russian army. Being of German ancestry was a new crime.
Counting miles between thunder and lightning and when the lightning never comes–this is what fifty years felt like, not hearing from him. Not knowing if he lived, or found someone to love; if he raised a family just as she did. If he survived WWII and Stalin, where was he? And would he wonder what had become of his younger sister? Could he imagine she had found her way past Poland and Hitler’s Germany to find safe passage for her family across the Atlantic Ocean? Whose imagination could stretch that far? Hers.
Imagination shapes our identity.
Fifty years passed before Johan could find his safe passage on a shaky railroad system, out of the Ukraine and through Germany’s back door. To leave the Ukraine meant leaving his children with their Russian names. He and his wife were allowed to leave because of his German surname. Their children and grandchildren were not allowed to leave, having been raised with what was once considered their mother’s safer Russian surname.
And so. Let the years begin. Let twenty more pass of rare reunions and international flights. But in the end Oma stayed in Montana and Johan stayed in Germany with his Russian wife. Pleasure is too small a theme. Came the day, came this week when Johan passed away.
I called Oma to tell her I was sorry for her loss. How hard it must be for her to be here and not be there to grieve. In the end, Johan had lost the ability to walk. Further, he had gone blind. Because I no longer am married to Oma’s son, I wasn’t sure what had become of Johan’s wife and so I asked about Tante Valia.
“Oh, Scherry,” Oma replied with her lovely heart-felt grace, “Tante Valia has Alzheimer’s. So there they were, imagine: The two sharing one married room in a nursing home. She hasn’t been able to remember who Johan is for some years, but still every day she gets out of bed and shakes him to wake up: Get up, get up. And now his bed is empty. And she doesn’t know who is gone.”