The day she was due to arrive from the other end of the world, mum went grocery shopping. It was autumn and the leaves were nearly all brown, their little bodies curling inwards. That’s what happens when you die, you curl inwards, you swallow yourself up. That’s why grandparents were so small and short, because they were old and had absorbed everything in world.
‘The pantry must be full,’ she said. ‘The food must be fresh and the labels, as much as possible, must be in German.’ She laughed at us when we asked why. She told us, my mother is particular!
That day she bought so much food that the pantry door couldn’t be closed. Instead, it lent open ever-so-slightly, its little tummy full, like our mother’s, which peeped out sometimes from underneath her jersey, because she was pregnant with our new sister. We knew the bump was a girl because mum checked with the doctor. She didn’t like surprises.
That afternoon mum baked apfelstrudel. She told us that is how you say apple strudel in German. We helped her peel all the apples and she tried to teach us how to peel one whole apple without breaking the skin so that you were left with twisty and twirly apple peels that were long and joined together. Mum could control the width of the peel and she made little thin rings out of her apples, but mine and Claudia’s were fat and short. Claudia and I surprised our dad when he came home with apple ringlets for hair.
‘Apfel haar,’ mum told us and we said it back to her: Ap-ful-har. ‘Gut,’ she said, ‘very gut! We will try to use as many German words as we can when Oma gets here.’
Dad spun the keys on his finger. ‘I’m going to the airport to pick her up,’ he said.
You two can go with your father,’ mum said. ‘I need to clean the kitchen before she arrives.
Can we take the apple rings with us?’ Caludia asked, but mum said no and when her back was turned, Claudia took a big handful of ringlets and stuffed them into her pockets.
When Oma walked out from the special tunnel at the airport, she flung her arms open and cry-sung when she saw us. She took me and Claudia in her arms, which were big enough to wrap around us both and kissed us on the heads and the cheeks. She looked at our faces and patted our chins. Then she hugged us one by one.
My arms were too small to fit even halfway around her. She was a big, soft, giant woman, my Oma, not small and bony like our New Zealand grandmum, dad’s mum. And she smelled just like the parcels of clothes she sent to us on our birthdays and at the start of winter and Christmastime. All the clothes were so colourful and different from the ones our friends wore but they were all far too large for me and Claudia.
‘Oma look,’ I said and me and Claudia held the apple rings up over our foreheads so they looked like we had curly hair.
Some of the rings were broken and they had turned brown but Oma laughed and kissed us again.
Then she hugged and kissed dad and he said, ‘welcome to New Zealand!’
She patted him on the shoulders and said, ‘gut!’
Me and Claudia ate the apple rings on the way home.
At home, mum had wiped away all the flour and apple cores and pips and the house smelled like caramel and cinnamon and warm buttery pastry.
Oma cried when she saw mum. She wrapped her daughter, our mum, right up inside her and rocked her from side to side and cry-sung and kissed and kissed and kissed her and patted her tummy and cried again. Then she patted her own tummy and walked to the pantry and flung open the door. A packet of gingernuts fell out and crunched when they hit the floor.
‘No! Oh No!’ she said when she looked in the pantry (she was learning English). Mum asked her what the matter was.
‘No, No, No,’ said Oma. ‘Why no food?’
Then she asked where the basement was and mum told her that we didn’t have one. That no one has basements in New Zealand and we don’t need extra food because the supermarket is just around the corner. Then she started talking so quickly in German that I couldn’t understand her and dad asked us to go to the lounge while they talked.
Oma was angry. She was shouting at my mother and pointing at us two girls standing in the doorway and telling our mum that we were too small.
‘What mother are you,’ she told her. ‘You have not think of the children? Look at small, small body. Children are not well, they do not eat enough. They eat apfel schale in automobile, Nicola! You give them apfel schale to eat!’
Mum was crying and holding onto her tummy. She was crying and crying and crying and Oma was saying ‘No! No!’ Her face was pink.
Dad took Oma into the lounge and sat us all down. I will make coffee, he said. Oma wrapped both her arms around me and Claudia and patted our arms. She squeezed my shoulders.
‘No, no. Too small you are,’ she said.
We had apfelstrudel that night, with crème fraiche and hot coffee for the adults. Mum had come back from her walk and she was quieter when she spoke to Oma. Oma loved mum’s baking. It made her happy again. She nodded as she ate.
‘Gut’, she said, ‘is gut Nicola!’
I was so full from dinner that I couldn’t finish my desert. ‘You eat,’ Oma said. And I made myself finish so I would grow up to be big like her.
Mum had to go to hospital the next day and she stayed there overnight. In the morning, Dad woke us very early and drove us there to visit.
‘We have a surprise,’ he said. Claudia thought it was lollies, but I know what he meant.
‘Oma, you will live for a very long time,’ I said.
‘Why do you say that?’ dad asked.
‘Because she is very big.’
Oma didn’t understand because I used too many English words and then dad told me it was rude to say things like that.
At the hospital mum was in bed and Oma was sitting on the bed end and dad said, ‘you have a new sister,’ which wasn’t really a surprise because mum had told us she would be a girl.
Oma was holding the little baby, its pink head nestled deep into the palms of her hands and when she held our sister close up to her, she almost disappeared into Oma’s chest. Oma was singing a German nursery rhyme to her very gently and swaying her back and forth.
‘Lora, Claudia,’ she said when she saw us and smiled. Then she took our mum’s small, white hands in hers and looked at mum for a very long time and said, ‘yes, Nicola, yes.’