By Anja Kumanatasan
Published on February 27, 2017
Ever since I was about four months old, I have been flying to Germany to visit my mom’s family home. My great-grandma and great-grandpa lived there with my great-aunt Annegret, and my oma (grandma in German) had also lived there until she got married and moved away. They all had a strong sense of what Germans call heimat, a sense of belonging to a home or region, which for them included the family-owned butcher shop and farmland with hens and rabbits in the backyard. My family lived across from the church on the main street in Oyten, in view of the cemetery where generations of their immediate and extended family members had been laid to rest.
Although I only visited during the summer, it felt like I grew up there. It was where my first birthday was celebrated, my first Christmas, and many other firsts. I remember sitting on great-grandpa’s lap and having my first Leberwurstbrot. I was too young to remember much of this firsthand, but I do have a distinct sense of place in this house—the scratchy wool blanket great-aunt Annegret always had over great-grandfather’s chair, the smell of great-aunt Annegret’s favourite drink, the German root beer Vitamalz, and the smell of old books and photographs. Sounds, too, like the church bells at the strike of each hour and the birds chirping in the cherry trees in the garden.
But my sense of place changed recently. On June 23, 2015, as I was waking up in Toronto and getting ready for work, my mom called me upstairs. I knew that great-aunt Annegret had been in the hospital for two weeks, but I did not know how serious it was. I was shocked to hear that she had passed away that morning, the day after returning home from the hospital. Her sister—my oma—did not want her to pass away in a cold, sterile hospital room, so great-aunt Annegret spent her final moments in the house she grew up in, surrounded by family and a lifetime of memories.
I lost more than just great-aunt Annegret that day. I lost years of family history that she did not get to tell me. Most of my cousins are younger than I am, and they did not have the same close relationship that I had with great-aunt Annegret. No one seemed to understand the depth of the loss that I felt, the loss of family history and knowledge that I did not yet have. At one point I even felt angry at her for not telling me that she was so ill, for not letting me ask her all the questions I wanted to ask while she was alive. She did not leave me a letter or a note with any final words. Most of all, though, I was heartbroken that I did not get to say good-bye.
My parents and I traveled to Germany a few days later to attend the funeral and help organize great-aunt Annegret’s estate. When oma asked if I wanted anything, I knew immediately what I wanted: the photo albums. I could try to piece together more stories of the house, the many generations of my family, and this place they have called home for so long. I am grateful for the years that I got to spend with great-aunt Annegret and for all the memories that I have of that very special house. I wear every day the ring she gave me, and also on my necklace is my grandpa’s wedding band. The house may be thousands of miles away in Germany, but my sense of place in the family has stayed close and dear to me.
- Tuan, Yi-Fu. 1979. “Space and place: Humanistic perspective.” In Philosophy in Geography, edited by S. Gale and Gunnar Olsson. Springer Netherlands. 387-427.
- Applegate, Celia. 1990. A Nation of Provincials: The German Idea of Heimat. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Anja Thenuka Kumanatasan is a fourth-year student at the University of Toronto, pursuing a double major in Human Geography and English. She plans to attend the Ontario College of Teachers. Anja was born in Toronto to a German mother and Sri Lankan father, and is fluent in German and has an elementary understanding of Tamil. She began teaching German a few years ago to three- to five-year-olds at a heritage language school on Saturdays.