The arrival of a new baby and becoming a first-time Gramma, gave me pause to reflect on the grandmothers in my life. My little sister and I adored the grandmother we knew as Oma (the German word for Gramma) while growing up in the 1950s in a Mennonite farming community, in southwestern Ontario. We were 5 and 3 and while we had two grandmothers, Oma, who lived in a somewhat rickety white frame house across the field from us was special. My Dad’s father owned the farm but we lived in a house on the far corner of the farm just a hop, skip and jump from Oma’s house. My maternal grandmother lived in a house in town and was much less accessible to us. We called her Andere Oma, meaning Other Gramma in the German language, a callous term it seems to me now.
Both women had immigrated to Canada from the Ukraine - at that time, still known as Russia - with their husbands and children in 1925. Both families were Russian Mennonites from Schoenfeld, a Mennonite region in southern Russia. Both sets of ancestors had been wealthy landowners with large acreages and estate homes until the Russian Revolution and subsequent Civil War destroyed their way of life. Each family, left homeless after their settlements had been razed and plundered, lived as refugees within other Mennonite Colonies in Russia for several years while awaiting Canadian and Russian governments’ permission to emigrate to Canada. My ancestors sailed across the ocean on the same ship, arrived penniless in Canada, and settled on farms in the same county in southwestern Ontario. All had been sponsored by Canadian Mennonite farm owners who provided accommodation and paid work on their farms for the immigrants.
My Oma was everything a little girl would want in a Gramma; she was generous with hugs and kisses, delighted in seeing us when we arrived at her door, and had a never-ending supply of homemade baked goods on hand for us. Loving, gentle and kind, she showered us with unconditional love; never losing her patience with our childhood antics. Of course, we were special to Oma and to Opa, our grampa; our proximity to them allowed us to be a part of their daily lives. Opa loved to pick us up, settle into his rocking chair with one little girl on each knee, and tell us stories about the Old Country.
His stories were magical: he had lived on a huge estate, he said, with servants on hand to work in the house, barns and fields. The thoroughbred horses he had raised there were his pride and joy; Beelzebub, a black stallion, was his favourite. On his birthday, he told us, he didn’t get presents but instead gave each of the servants a gift. Our eyes were round as saucers as he spun out his stories. There were dark tales too; of wars and murders, the alternating front lines of White Army forces, the Reds (Bolscheviks), and the robber bands attacking in the night. He described the nightmare of fleeing their home in dead of night with Oma and his children after his parents had been murdered. It was no longer safe to stay; he never saw Beelzebub or his beloved estate again.