My Great-Grandmother Katie, has been on my mind a lot lately. I’m not sure why. Usually when people are on my mind so much or if I dream about them, I call them or email, but those no longer with me… just keep bugging me until I hear what they are trying to say.
I had a special bond with my Bama. Besides being named after her- I was told all my life I looked just like her. Now- today at 57, I look at my hands and see hers, age spots in the same places and in the mirror, the wrinkles on my face bring her face into view. She was tall and lean though, where I am short and not so lean. She was 5’9 and maybe 140 pounds, she had an athlete’s body.
Katherine Niemann was a tough German woman who came to this country in 1906 when she was seventeen; all by herself. Her first job here was in an insane asylum in Sonoma, cleaning, I think. She met my Great Grandfather John there-- he was a young carpenter at the time.
She was intelligent and independent. She taught herself English on the boat coming over. I still have the book she used with her notes in German and then later in English. When my Great-Grandfather became a San Francisco Policeman, they moved to San Francisco where she taught swimming at Sutro Baths. Eventually, she opened her own bakery/store in the Geneva-Mission district. (The same area my mother's people lived). Her brother, Willie Niemann owned the Buena Vista Café, now famous for their Irish coffee.
She was brutally frank. Not unlike myself. She made no bones about letting someone know if she did not like them. Later in life, her sharp tongue kept her family away. She could read my mind too. She always knew what I was thinking. She had a way of telling me things that made sense to me.
She had two sons. Will, my grandfather who died when I was about 2 and Ben, my Uncle who I loved to death. Bama, was the one that told me- “The worst thing that can ever happen to parent is to have their child die first.” I never forgot her words or the teary eyes that spoke them- 10 years after her son had died.
Kate raised my father. One story is, my grandfather was a ner’do’well and his wife was not able to support a baby- so they gave the baby to my Great-Grandmother. Another is they paid them off to get the baby and that my Great-grandfather bullied the situation. Either of those or none of them could be true. In any case- my grandfather was not a very responsible guy and I think he was an alcoholic too. Still- he was her favorite. Later my dad was her favorite. She called him a schmoozer. She knew he manipulated her- but she didn’t care.
When my Great-Grandfather left her for another woman, my father was about three years old and she was probably about 50. She lived in a big corner house on 46th Ave. In San Francisco and rented out rooms. She took care of herself.
She received something like 800.00 in her divorce. She eventually remarried, the kindest man in the world- Papa Carl. He bought her the house she always wanted- with lots of land to garden, have chickens, trees and a place to sit in the shade under the grape vines.
When she was in her 70’s she was stricken with breast cancer. She had the breast removed and came home 4 days later to tend her farm. Papa Carl was already gone. She was alone. She asked me if I wanted to see her scar. I shook my head yes even though I was afraid to see it. She took off her shirt and showed me he gapeing hole that was once her chest and underarm. She was stitched from under her arm towards her back to the front middle of her stomach. They was no plastic surgery for 70 something women in those days. She sat down at her sewing machine and removed the pocket, which was always on the left side of all her shirts and moved it to the right. She stuffed that pocket everyday with a fresh handkerchief to fill the gap and make her look even.
Bama told me all about dreams. I believe she had prophetic dreams that would disturb her for days at a time. She had a tendency to believe in the odd and occult- things like rubbing a dead persons hand on a wart would make it disappear. Thankfully we never tried that one on my wart.
Her medicine cabinet was full of Bengay, Mercurochrome, and Colgate products. I can still smell her Bengay. She taught me to bake, cook some German food and sew. She taught me to garden- though I never was as good as she. I learned how beautiful a birds song is when I sat at the kitchen table eating my homemade jam on homemade bread listening to her German canaries make music. Sometimes I would just sit with Papa Carl and watch him play solitaire and listen to the birds.
She lived through two world wars, Korea and Vietnam. She raised two sons and one grandson. She buried one son and one husband. (no tears were shed when her ex-husband passed). She traveled from Stade, Germany to San Francisco, California all by herself. She slept through some of the 1906 earthquake until her brother ran up the hill and made her leave the flat. She thought it was a thunderstorm. She lived with German guilt most of her adult life because of Hitler. She could not watch a war movie. She was not religious but was spiritual. She slept with a baseball bat next to her bed. She saved rainwater to wash her hair and reused everything until it was no longer usable. She never left a light on and when I stayed with her she fashioned a button to a string fastened to a light switch on the lamp so when I drifted off to sleep the light would go off. She was around for horse drawn carriages and trips to the moon. She took her first airplane ride in her late 70’s. She never drove a car. She could give a cold look like no one else I have ever met- although my mother said my cold look was the same. She loved my father, my brother John and me. She was an independent woman forty years before the movement.
I like to think I am like her. The good stuff anyway.
So now, I am searching for what it is she is trying to tell me. Maybe she is just trying to say hello. But I think it’s more. Should I sew? Bake? Plant some potatoes? Should write her stories? I wish I could hear more clearly. Maybe she will tell me in a dream.