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Thorns of Bitterness

by Heidi Neumark

One of my earliest memories of my grandmother Ida is that she gave me roses—with all the thorns removed. I was 4 years old and my family was visiting her in Switzerland. I knew that my grandparents had lived most of their lives in Germany where my father grew up, but it did not seem odd that my grandmother (or oma) had chosen to live out her final years in a Swiss alpine village where she had a comfortable room to herself in a beautiful chalet with bright red and pink flowers pouring from carved wooden window boxes.

Oma spoke just a little English, and I even less German, but that didn’t hinder our shared affection. In addition to the roses, she served me strawberries with bowls of whipped cream. We went on forest hikes, making frequent stops at what I called “Oma benches.” At the end of these journeys, we would emerge into a sunny field strewn with constellations of alpine flowers, overlooking hills and snowcapped mountains, and there would we’d find a chalet serving tall, frothy ice cream concoctions such as I had never seen before. Visiting Oma was a fairytale come to life, without the scary parts.

When we couldn’t see each other, our love traveled back and forth across the ocean. I sent handmade cards to her, and she sent postcards to “meine love Heidi, meine little good Heidi” and signed off “with many love and kisses your old oma Neumark.” Oma was short and plump with soft, white hair pinned up, rosy cheeks and a warm, ready smile. She appeared to have lived a charmed life until her death at the age of 94. I would never have described her as someone of low-estate.

 Oma died near my 13th birthday, for which she’d sent me a gift—a silver heart necklace with a single pearl cradled inside the curves of the heart. I treasure the necklace, but her real legacy to me is in how she lived in the aftermath of trauma, as though she’d plucked every thorn of bitterness from her flesh.

The Rev. Heidi Neumark is the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church of Manhattan and the author of Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx and the upcoming Googling Moses.

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