A woman who inspired me long before I truly became a woman was my paternal great grandmother, Oma Van Roon. As kids we called her “Old Oma.” She passed away when I was young, but I still remember her vividly. Even though she is no longer living, I still can pull inspiration from the stories my family tells of her and her amazing perseverance and positive attitude.
Oma grew up in Holland and immigrated to Canada with her 6 children and husband after the war. Before they left she spent many years away from her husband because he was very ill and had to live in a higher altitude. They moved to Canada with nothing, and he ended up dying of a tumor 10 months later. She raised 6 children on her own living in a very small shack on the Alberta prairie in a country she had never seen before, and a language she did not know.
As a child meeting my funny and silly Old Oma I had no clue what she had been through: the horror of war, the pain of losing her husband and true love, the fear of being alone, and the hectic life of raising children alone and with no money. Obviously I still do not have a clue what she truly went through. But she encouraged me to be thankful. The kind of truly thankful contentment that I think only people who have had nothing at all can understand.
Oma was such a ray of light even when it seemed like everything that could go wrong did. My very favorite memory of her is of a whole crew of us great grandchildren sitting in my Oma’s living room around Old Oma and her crowing like a rooster. The room would erupt with laughter and giggles and she would do it again and we would all roll on the floor laughing. I guess the best comedians are the ones who are willing to laugh at themselves. Old Oma also used to poke jokes at all of us and our parents. Watching this teeny little wrinkled woman pinch my big brawny dad always made me laugh. To me he was always the biggest and strongest man in the world and he would be reduced to a silly giggling little boy when his Oma teased him.
Oma used to have a goat that would roam around the farm and wreak havoc. It would jump on the roof, sneak in the house, wreck all manner of things and generally be a pain in the ass. One day the pastor came over for Sunday lunch and what did the goat do? Jumped on the roof of his shiny new car. Old Oma put her foot down and said the goat had to go. No one wanted to butcher it, but someone finally did. Old Oma being the frugal woman that she was cooked him up and served him for supper. She said grace and one of the kids staring at the meal started to bleat like a goat and on cue they all started to cry. No one ate the goat. This story cracks me up. Partly because I can picture a grubby little kid a lot like my own bleating like a goat at the table, and partly because Old Oma was so real and even though times were hard and money was scarce, she did not ignore the real emotions of her family. Even emotions about a crazy goat.
My Oma told me recently about Old Oma (her mother) and all that she did for her. Old Oma used to come stay with whatever child of hers was having a new baby and care for the other children. Oma also told me that Old Oma would come watch the kids so that she could fix torn clothing and sew new clothing for her family. I was listening to these stories about the hard times and feeling a bit like an entitled shmuck and Oma just said to me “Times are hard for everybody in all sorts of ways, it’s important to be thankful and trust God.”
When I say I come from a heritage of strength this is what I am talking about: Being raised by people who so truly believe that every good thing comes from God and every struggle is a lesson is an amazing example.
Old Oma used to inquire about her granddaughters who had new babies to check if they were “good milk cows,” I love that. I’m sure she would have been quite impressed with my epic milk jugs if she had been still alive. Obviously she was the one who inspired my father to compare my mom, sister and I to “good angus cows.” This is in fact a large compliment: Angus cows drop small calves, grow them up big quickly and are fiercely protective mothers. Also they are delicious.
Before she died, Old Oma had a small apartment and I remember is being filled with what I felt like were hundreds of pictures. She had a picture of each child, grandchild, and great grandchild and would pray for each of us every single day. She was quoted as saying “Ya, I’m getting old, and I cannot remember so good anymore, so I write them all down. I think God will understand if I forget sometime.”
If Old Oma were here today, and she came to my house for super I would make her “Gehaktbal Soep” or Meatball Soup. It is a Dutch staple. Often made by the mother before church, and left to simmer so that it is ready for lunch after church. My family has a lot of trouble with the Dutch language and my mother is the only one who can speak it. My dad pronounces it a lot like “ghghghghghgughttballeches soup.” Now you try: hawk up a huge wad of spit and gargle it in the back of your throat and add a lot of consonants and ta-da you can speak Dutch. (Or at least that is my dad’s method… Drives my mom nuts.)
Old Oma’s Gehaktbal Soep
1 lb of ground beef, or turkey. (I find a mix of 1:1 turkey and beef makes lovely meatballs)
1 cup breadcrumbs
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pinch nutmeg
Roll the meatballs and cook on a sheet pan at 350 F until they are just done. You do not want to over cook them, or they will crumble in the soup. Make them the size of a nickel.
2 litres chicken or vegetable stock
½ cup diced onions
½ cup diced carrots (If you are making this for my mother, skip the carrots)
½ cup diced celery
1 cup diced stewed tomatoes
(And any other veggies that you happen to have. This soup is made with whatever you happen to have in the house. It is never exactly the same.)
1 cup fine soup noodles
Salt and pepper to taste
Sweat the onions in a bit of butter, and then add the other veggies and the stock. Let it come to a simmer and then add the noodles and meatballs. Serve after church to whoever you happen to invite over.
I will leave you with a piece of advice Old Oma gave as told by my Oma: Sometimes one becomes discouraged when trying to help someone, and it turns sour, or when one has been taken advantage of. When I told Mother (Old Oma) about it once she told me, “Doe wel en ziet niet om.” Meaning:
“Do good, but don’t look back.”
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