“I never would have known you were in an accident. You look fine. Is Alicia all right?”
A few weeks later, I sat on a barstool at the edge of the kitchen counter, drooling over the gorgeous photos of the campus of one of my top college choices: Westmont, a conservative Christian school up the coast in Santa Barbara County. UCLA and the local Cal State campus rounded out my list.
My paternal grandmother, Oma, worked in the kitchen rolling out the dough for an apple strudel on the counter of the island. She was staying with my sisters and me while Mom and Daddy were on a cruise to Baja California.
“You’re growing up so fast, liebchen,” Oma said. “College already! Tell me, though, why should you need to look at all those pretty magazines? I always thought you would go to Elk River.”
Elk River College was the alma mater of my dad’s brothers and both his parents. Oma always spoke of it as if it were the nation’s premier faith-based institution, a place where true followers of Christ received the most rigorous training for their hearts, souls and minds. From my earliest childhood, Oma painted a picture of the place with her words, doing her utmost to tempt me, her favorite granddaughter, to one day be brave enough to journey from sunny Citrus Valley back to the snows of ancestral Ohio. She liked to quote a sentence from their promotional materials: “Perched on a gorge overlooking the rushing rapids of its namesake waterway, the awe-inspiring beauty of the campus beckons students to come contemplate the majesties of the Lord.”
It did sound amazing, but between the distance and high cost, I had written off attending there as unrealistic. The academic and alumni scholarships they were offering would barely cover room and board.
“That would be wonderful, Oma. But it’s so expensive, just like Westmont. They raised tuition again this year, can you believe it? I’d love a Christian education, but I don’t want to end up with tons of debt. Daddy thinks I should go to Cal State Citrus Valley like he did, but lately I’m leaning more toward UCLA.”
Oma muttered a mild German oath. She applied the rolling pin to the strudel dough with renewed vigor. I already knew her opinions of the depravity of California state schools and could read on her face the effort she made to restrain herself from giving another lecture on the subject.
Abruptly, the motion of her powerful forearms came to a halt. “So, my alma mater is too expensive, is it?” she asked with a twinkle in her eye. “Perhaps you won’t care that it’s so kostspielig if I pay the tuition? Room and board won’t leave you with much debt.”
“Oh, Oma! I couldn’t ask you to do that.”
“Who’s asking? I insist. It’s a gift of love, an investment in the Kingdom of Heaven. I know God will bless you there, like he did me, like he did your uncles. I only wish meine kleine Franz had gone there too. But then, he wouldn’t have met Millie, and I wouldn’t have you, liebchen, would I?”
I knew it would be no use arguing with her. Not that I wanted her to take back an offer like that. After all, Oma had always held out Elk River as the epitome of college perfection, and I wasn’t about to talk myself out of a nearly free education.
I ran across the kitchen and threw my arms around her stout body. It surprised me how fragile she felt in my arms. Her spine jutted up in knobby ridges between the sharp outline of shoulder blades. When I let go, I saw moisture shimmering in Oma’s eyes.
“Tears of joy, liebchen,” she said quickly in response to my look of concern. “I only wish your dear Opa could be here to witness this day.” At my prompting, she told me again of how they met and married during their time at Elk River.
When Mom and Daddy got back from vacation, Oma insisted that we accompany her to set up a trust for my education. “I may be joining your Papa in heaven sooner than you think,” she said over Daddy’s protestations. “Elk River was good for me, it will be good for Giselle, too.”
“We can’t protect her from the world forever, Mama,” Daddy said. I noticed that he never spoke directly to me the whole time.
Neither one of them had any idea of the ways the world had already found me. A close-knit and accountable Christian community like the one Oma described at Elk River seemed custom-tailored to save me from myself.