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“Eena-mina mink-munk
Oooza-wooza becka-dish
Eye-ah why-ah weck!”

This is a nonsense choosing-rhyme my Grandma taught my sister and I when we were little kids; it was her version of “Eeenie meenie miney-mo.” I’m not sure if it was entirely made up by Grandma and her brother when they were kids, or if this was a common children’s choosing-rhyme in Germany in the 1930s. It works the same way as Eeenie-meenie, where one points back and forth among the choices while chanting out the syllables. As I stumble around trying to kind-of read German webpages, I think it is somewhat related to schoolyard nonsense rhymes; maybe it was Grandma’s own take or partially-remembered verses.

I’ve been thinking about Grandma a lot lately; she’d been under treatments for cancer for something like the past two-and-a-half years, and since this past winter, we’ve known that the outlook was not good. Apparently, last summer, Grandma’s doctor told her that the time for doing any travelling was upon her, so she and Grandpa committed to coming to my sister & her husband’s wedding. My aunt Sylvia made the travel arrangements and came out with them and it was beyond wonderful to get to see all of them. My last memory of seeing Grandma alive was seeing her having a good time at the wedding reception, wearing a beautiful brocade coat and looking as elegant as always. She got to meet Audrey’s husband and see their sweet baby Max (named after Grandpa). Grandma and Grandpa got to meet Joel. We had one last big, family hurrah.

Grandma died this past Sunday in the evening. She was no longer in pain; her breathing just slowed, slowed, slowed, and finally stopped. She died at home, with her husband and children nearby. One can wish for no better a passing. Since the middle of last week, Grandma had been unable to speak, but she could nod or shake her head in answer. She was indicating yesterday afternoon that she needed something, but neither Mom nor Aunt Sylvia could figure it out. They called Grandpa in, and he asked Grandma if she knew who he was. She nodded, and reached out for his hands and held them tight. I think she wanted to say “goodbye” to the man she’d shared her life with for almost 60 years.

I took this picture when my sister and I had gone up to visit my grandparents in 2005.

I think I will share some of my memories of Grandma, because I want to. I’m not sure I can convey her fabulousness, but I just want to talk about her, you know?

Punkt, Punkt, Komma, Strich,
fertig ist das Mondgesicht.

There’s more to it. It’s a short bedtime tucking-in poem that was part of my childhood. It was a nightly ritual. I know phonetically how the rest of it sounds, but I can’t spell it; I don’t know German. I know what it’s supposed to say, from the start to the finish.

The translation, as I can remember it is,

Dot, dot, comma, dash
Finished is the moon’s face
Is not this a fine young miss
In her long white nightgown?
With! Three! Shiny! Buttons! On!

And the way this bedtime poem was done is that the child lays still with her eyes closed and the parent touches one eyelid then the other, when saying “punkt” at “komma” the nose is touched, and “strich” the parent’s finger is drawn across the child’s mouth, like drawing one of those yellow smiley faces. Then, the parent smoothes the blankets over the child while describing the long white nightgown. The three shiny buttons are described by three taps down the chest to the stomach, with a little tickle when you say the final word. That was our bedtime ritual, handed down from Grandma to Mom and possibly from Great-Grandma to Grandma. I wish I could find the proper words for it someplace…the actual German spellings. It’s something I always meant to ask Grandma to write out, but now, of course, it is too late to ask that.


Grandma worked as a hairdresser for a lot of years. She got her cosmetology license in the early 1970s and did hair from that point on through the early 1990s experiencing the biggest years of complicated haircuts, curly perms, frosted highlights and streaks. She worked at a salon in Los Gatos with mostly a bunch of very young and trendy hairdressers. One of her co-workers was an Asian-American man named Troy who had a very glam-rock shag haircut with bleached sections that he would dye vivid sky blue and pink. I thought that was one of the coolest hair-styles ever! During her hairdressing years, Grandma took to wearing interesting earrings, the reason behind which was that since her head was so near so many other people’s heads, she might as well give them something interesting to look at. Over the years after her retirement, she gave me several choice pair of her old earrings. One pair is made of dyed feathers which are delightfully lightweight, if a bit tickly. I have a couple of very pretty cloisonné pair, too. Audrey received a set of graduated abalone discs which work well in her multiply pierced ears.

I loved when Grandma would take us to see where she worked. I liked watching the hairdressers work over their clients, changing their look, chatting and catching up. For quite a while when I was a kid, I thought that I might want to be a hairdresser when I grew up. It seemed like a pretty cool job, and I really liked the way it sounds when scissors snip off a lock of hair. I’ve always been easily amused.

Aunts Sylvia and Debbie, holding little Audrey
I bet my Aunt Debbie’s exuberantly large perm was Grandma’s handiwork.

From the same visit, at Great-Grandma Elly’s house. From left to right: Grandma Helga, me, Aunt Sylvia, Aunt Debbie, Great-Grandma Elly, and Audrey.


When Grandma first started working as a hairdresser, there were a lot ladies who kept regular, weekly hair appointments. They went in for elaborately rolled and curled styles which were set once a week and washed out and re-set a week later. The intervening time saw their hairdos preserved at night under a silk cap and during the day by avoidance of weather. As perms got better, cheaper, and more common, a lot of the weekly customers switched to perms but would still come in for a wash and style simply out of force of habit and for the sake of socializing.

One of Grandma’s wash-n-set customers was an elderly woman who took to driving after her husband had died. Her children, thinking they’d set her up with a user-friendly car, clubbed together to procure a Chrysler with a push-button automatic transmission. Sure, the lady could get the car to go and stop, but she was at a loss in regards to the art of maneuvering the car, especially reversing and turning simultaneously. Grandma had learned to drive pretty early on in her marriage to Grandpa. One of Grandpa’s ideas about driver’s training seems to have included a gratuitous amount of reversing, including (according to Grandma) one time being required to drive in reverse for something akin to 3 miles. If anybody could back a big ol’ boat of a Chrysler out of a tight parking space, it was Grandma. So, after she’d done this lady’s hair, she’d help the woman extricate the Chrysler from the parking lot. Talk about going above and beyond the call of service!


Grandma was no stranger to big cars, though. A 1962 Buick Skylark convertible was the smallest, sportiest car Grandma ever owned and drove. She only had that car for a short while before her mother, my Great Grandma Elly wrecked it. Grandma Elly had never learned how to drive, but she determined in her 60s that it was high time that she do so. Grandma Helga agreed that it was a good idea, and so Grandma Elly got herself a learner’s permit, and the two of them would go out driving in Grandma Helga’s convertible. As the story goes, Grandma Elly was doing quite well and they were becoming confident that she could go and take her driving test and get her license soon. One day they set out to run some errands, Grandma Elly driving and Grandma Helga riding shotgun. Grandma Elly, however, found herself in the wrong lane of traffic, about to be funneled on to the freeway and she panicked. She swerved the car sharply and it fishtailed slamming the passenger side into a concrete barricade. They both walked away from the wreck with fairly minor injuries, but the car was totaled. Grandma Elly lost all confidence in her ability to drive and never went for her license, and Grandma Helga swore to keep a great deal more Detroit steel between herself and the outside world from then on out.


Grandma’s car that I remember the best was a behemoth land-barge of a 1974 Olds Regency 88, metallic chocolate brown with a tan vinyl top and tan velour interior. That car was a B O A T and it sailed the California highways well into the 1990s. I used to get so violently, miserably carsick in that car, as did my sister. In 1990, my Aunt Debbie and Uncle Danny got married. That summer, Audrey and I stayed out in California with my grandparents for about a month and a half. We rode Amtrak out there with our Mom, then stayed with Grandma and Grandpa until after the wedding. Mom and Dad came out in the VW the week before the wedding. Anyway at the time, Grandma and Grandpa were about 75% done building their house. It was framed, the exterior walls were up, and most of the interior walls were. The plumbing fixtures were set and the water was running. There were workable lights in all of the rooms. It was largely liveable. At the time, Grandma was about half-retired from doing hair. Grandpa was all the way retired from Ford and was working on the house full-time. He stayed up the hill most of the time, and Grandma would come up with supplies and help him build whenever she wasn’t working. Most of their household goods were still in their old house in San Jose, which was were my aunt who was getting married was living, therefore we split the time between the house on the hill and the San Jose house. Therefore, we made a LOT of trips up and down tight, steep, winding mountain roads in a car that was basically Motion Sickness on Wheels. There were many stops for barfing.


On that same trip, I got my first grown-up dress, of which I was extraordinarily proud. I turned 13 while we were visiting and I determined that I was too grown to wear the standard dress-up dress I’d known for my entire life:
My opinion was that the dress I would wear to the wedding would have no lace, no ruffles, and preferably it would not be a floral print. Gawd! I have to give my Grandma kudos for not clobbering me, because that shopping trip was the biggest exercise in frustration. I was small for my age and awkward, with enormous black-framed glasses that made me look like an owl and orthodontic headgear. I wanted something fashionable and teenagery, but I was still too small for most Junior/Miss sizing. The things in my size-range were (to my eyes) babyish or just plain ugly. (Granted, it was 1990 so the “just plain ugly” was probably not a misperception). Due to my exacting standards and a dearth of dresses available in a Size 1, it seemed like a hopeless case until…the perfect outfit presented itself:

As you can see, it was WAY too fabulous of a dress for an awkward, four-eyed, head-geared 13-year-old, which is probably why it was so perfect. When I wore it, it was the first time that I really felt chic. and that’s a hell of a gift to a girl at that stage in her life. I can’t believe that Grandma let me get it; it was definitely too “old” for me. I know Mom was a bit taken aback when she saw it, and I didn’t get too many future opportunities to wear it, but the times I did wear it were fantastic! Thank you again, Grandma!


Grandma loved rose bushes and had marvelous results with them at the San Jose house. The fence line in the backyard was lined with them, and rosebushes were planted in front of the house and along a side-yard, too. She had many varieties in different colors, different blossom configurations; the only commonality was that they were all fragrant varieties. From when they began to bloom in the late spring until they finished in the fall, Grandma would keep two cut roses in a vase on a little table in their front entry hall. That is what that little table was for, and there was a mirror hung behind it which reflected the roses. Their scent was the first thing you noticed when you came inside.


Some of my habits are influenced by those of my Grandma and Great-Grandma. One of those is the presence of fruit at breakfast. I almost always have some sort of fruit as part of my breakfast. Melon or grape are especially choice. The scent of bananas, cantaloupe and coffee makes me think of my grandparents’ old house in San Jose, too. Neither Grandma nor Great Grandma really went in for informal meals. Even for lunch, cold cuts and sliced cheese were laid out prettily on a plate, with another plate of sliced bread next to it, and possibly a serving bowl full of salad or another plate with cut up vegetables cut-up fruit. I don’t go to as great of an effort as Grandma and Great Grandma did, but I do like to set the table and make a certain amount of effort as regards presentation. Sometimes, I do like to go all the way out, though, and set out an elaborate spread. It especially makes me think of going over to Great Grandma Elly’s little yellow house on Commanche Ave. in San Jose and looking at her various curios (a wooden nutcracker shaped like a squirrel, a laughing Buddah statue in the backyard, Japanese dolls from Aunt Helga, and any number of owl figurines). We’d trail after Great Grandma helping to dead-head flowers in the back yard or dust in the house or set the table for lunch.


My sister and I have silver necklaces, each with a little schornsteinfeger charm on it. In Germany, chimney sweeps are considered to bring good luck (well, it’s a good thing to have your chimney clean and in good order so your house doesn’t burn down!) Grandma had a gold chain with a golden Schornsteinfeger charm on it that I was especially impressed with when I was little. When she and Great Grandma Elly went to Germany for a visit, she brought back schornsteinfeger necklaces for Audrey and me as souvenirs. Both of us still have them and wear them regularly. I have mine on right now! As you can see from the photo below, he’s a cute and jaunty little chimneysweep.
Schornsteinfeger charm.


Whenever I am offered green tea (a beverage I don’t especially like) I am reminded of a story my grandma told of her childhood in Shanghai. Though she was German, she was friends with some Chinese children, too from their English school. One of her friends invited her over to dinner and so she went. Her friend had explained how her grandparents were the heads of the family and that when they were around, the kids had to be on their best behavior. Her mother impressed upon her how important it was to have good manners while she was visiting her friend’s house and to eat nicely, even if the food was strange to her. Apparently her friend’s grandmother poured out tea for everyone, and Grandma (who must have been about 10 or 11 at the time) found it terribly bitter, but she drank her cup of tea to be polite. Her friend’s grandmother promptly re-filled the cup. Grandma realized with dread that she had to drink another cup of strong, bitter green tea. (“They didn’t put milk and sugar in,” I remember Grandma remarking) Her friend noticed Grandma gamely sipping away at the tea and took pity. She advised Grandma to just not finish it off completely, that she would receive no more tea, nor would she give offense.


The English school was taught by missionaries I think. Grandma described one of her teachers as being a wizened old-maid who looked as through she would blow away in a strong wind. This teacher would get cross with the children if they practiced slang they learned from the movies or from GIs they might have met. “You sound like a Yank!” Grandma once exclaimed in imitation of this teacher who had a conniption over Grandma not having pronounced the word “bottle” with a sharply-defined “t” sound.


Grandma told me about the ways they tried to have a normal life in refugee camp. She and her friends would sneak into dances meant for older teens and young adults. The girls would pilfer lipstick from one girl’s older sister, would arrange their hair in elaborate rolled and puffed styles, and try to act “mature.” Grandma had paid jobs from as soon as she could; at junior-high age, she helped a dressmaker take apart clothing that had been donated to the refugees so that it could be re-made, re-sized, or recycled. They cut new garments out of this reclaimed fabric. Two-tone and contrast-trimmed dresses were necessarily the order of the day. Grandma said that she and her friends preferred two-piece outfits so they could possibly mix-and-match and that they tended to borrow and trade clothes amongst themselves in order to stretch their limited wardrobes. Like most schoolgirls, they liked to try to be stylish and chase boys, and dressing to the best of their means was a morale booster. Pre-war, Great-Grandma had been known to copy the newest styles from Berlin department stores using woolen fabrics she could get for a lower price due to Great Grandpa’s business of distributing woolen suiting and coat fabrics. Endeavoring to dress well on the cheap is apparently a family tradition.


Grandma Helga always fed the passing hummingbirds from the deck of their house up on the hill. Whenever I would talk to Grandma on the phone, she’d give me a hummingbird status update. Some mild winters, a few hummies would even hang around through the winter and so Grandma would have to keep the feeder thawed to keep the little rascals alive. The last time I was out to visit Grandma and Grandpa, I took my digital camera and took a series of pictures of Grandma’s neighborhood hummingbirds. It was the first time that I really understood the wonder of digital…that you could even see some of their bitsy, fast-moving wing feathers! That was a revelation to me.

I think being a shutterbug is something that comes to me, either by nature or nurture. Grandma and Great Grandma both were awfully fond of their SLRs…mom has Great Grandma’s old Pentax now and is keeping it busy. It takes nice pictures for her, too. Grandma’s grandfather, Great-Grandma Elly’s father, had been a commercial photographer. I think it might be in the blood. Grandma had a knack or a curse for metaphotography depending on how you wanted to look at it. It seems like in most of her packs of pictures, there is one where she took a picture of somebody taking a picture. Whenever I deliberately take a picture of somebody taking a picture, I think of Grandma’s uncanny ability of capturing other shutterbugs in the wild.


As I said before: Grandma has been in my thoughts a lot especially through the past year. Her stories have always been an important part of my life. How I understand my family history is shaped by the stories my family tells about itself, from Grandma and Great-Grandma’s explanations of life in Shanghai during the Nazi rise and the war to Grandma’s adaptation to life as an American. I always loved her stories of when my Mom and her siblings were kids; I loved it when Grandma ratted out my own mother’s childhood hijinks. I loved my Grandma dearly and I expect I will find myself missing her in ways I can’t even guess right now.

4 Responses to “A few memories of Grandma”

  1. celiathepoet says:

    M, just a beautiful series of stories. Condolences to you and your family.

  2. kim says:

    so sorry to hear that… it sounds like she was a really neat grandma,

  3. Maggi says:

    I’m so sorry to hear of your loss, sweetie. She sounds like a truly incredible woman, and I can clearly see her many influences in your life. You are a tribute to what a neat person she was!

  4. […] some of you might know, my grandma died back in June and I’ve really missed her a lot. It seems weird not being able to call her up and just chat […]

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