Tomorrow my grandmother would have celebrated her 102nd birthday. She missed it by three days, having passed away in her sleep on July 1st.
Even though “Oma” has been subdued and sweet these past few years, I will always think of her as our psychically powerful matriarch – able to bend strong wills with a slight glance, or a sharp word.
And she did have more than a few sharp words in her lifetime. And opinions.
She was an artist, Erna was. In every sense. She demanded aesthetic compliance – once I brought her a geranium in a garish hue and she made me return it for a subtler shade, one more muted and deserving of her carefully tended wine barrel planter.
When a person brought her a gift, she’d carefully unwrap it, salvaging the paper and storing it in a pile in her attic where, the following year, she would wrap a new gift for the person in the very paper. She didn’t need to label it. She knew who gave her what.
Erna Freisinger was known locally for her paintings. Palette-knife oils, originally. Landscapes, still lifes. She moved onto acrylics in her sixties. Watercolors in her seventies. One of her painting hung in a bank. Another was the cover of the Warwick phone book. The one pictured below is one of my faves – it hangs just outside my office. If she’d ever seen my display of her paintings, she’d have had a word or two. Once, I remember her bustling into our house, hammer in hand, to adjust the display of her work throughout our rooms and hallways.
My Oma was Viennese through and through. I think she never got over having to abruptly leave her homeland in 1939, my one-year-old father in tow. The Anschluss – the Nazis. My grandfather and his partially Jewish blood. Opa had managed to flee to America right after my father was born, and when Nazi occupation became inevitable, Oma and my dad slipped out on the very last boat from Italy. Oma never liked being unsettled. Her life revolved around family, duty, loyalty, pride. Art.
And yet, she had a whimsical side.
Once, we convinced her to scale the chain link fence of the country club pool for an illegal midnight swim. She often escaped to open fields and forests to collect things that she would later weave into wreaths. She was a “lefty,” busying herself with handwork projects involving yarn, fabric, textures. She made hundreds and hundreds of cookies every Christmas, and Opa would grab my sister and me to deliver tins of them to nurses and patients.
The one time she hit me, it was because I spilled milk in her kitchen. A moment of clumsiness, and boom, broken glass. A mess. She slapped me across the face. And then lamented it the rest of the day. Apologizing over and over for her loss of temper.
To say that my Oma was a role model would be overstating it. Would sound like an elegiac move: she’s dead, let’s praise her. She wasn’t who I aspired to be, but she demonstrated a unique will – fierce, enormous. And for that, I am grateful. For the shining example of spending half her life – the last half – the 50+ half – being known for her art. Being known as an artist.
Especially with my second book coming out in September. A book that draws a lot from the life of a misunderstood Austrian figure. Imagining Empress Elisabeth as a carefree girl before circumstance and duty morphed her into a legendary mad woman has expanded my consciousness, along with my understanding of proud women generally.
So, Oma, happy 102nd birthday. Born on the 4th of July was a legacy you never wanted, but endured for more than a century.