In her TBLI application, Christina Wright wrote animatedly about how she hoped to travel to Germany to meet Oma Ella, a 103-year old woman who, even at her age, was intentionally traveling the world. Christina’s dream trip came true, and in May, 2013 she traveled to Berlin to spend a week with this extraordinary woman, learning all about her life and adventures.
The Passion Passport community was saddened to learn that Oma Ella passed away just a few weeks ago, at the age of 105, and we extend our deepest condolences to her family and friends. To honor her memory, we connected with Christina to reminisce about who Ella was, and how she impacted all those who knew her.
Passion Passport: We were so saddened to hear that Oma Ella passed away a couple of weeks ago. How did you hear the news?
Christina Wright: Like with a lot of things these days, the news started evolving on Facebook. A lot of people had become friends or followers of Ella’s over the last many years, and people started posting in German about her not doing well. Her grandson, who managed her Facebook page, posted things about her health too and mentioned that she was in the hospital. It was weird — in this social media world that we live in today, I could almost see her decline happen in real time.
Her grandson continued to post pictures of them in the hospital, as well as minute-by-minute updates. It was crazy and a little bit eerie. Some people were asserting that she had passed away before it actually even happened, writing Rest in Peace on her page. It was amazing to see where these people were writing from, though: Bhutan and Azerbaijan and all over the US and Canada. But I didn’t understand what was actually happening: had she died?
A friend of mine who I knew growing up in Michigan actually moved to Berlin several months ago and had friended Ella on Facebook because of my connection with her. They had met in person, too. He is fluent in German so I asked him what was really going on. He said that she was really sick and he didn’t think that she would last the night. Then the next day, her grandson officially posted that she had passed away.
PP: When was the last time you were in touch with her?
CW: The last time I saw her was at the biergarden in Munich. Since then, we had been in touch on Facebook, though I was more in touch with her grandson directly. He would share all the messages and wishes with her. As Ella got to the end of her life, she had dementia pretty severely.
Her family had planned a whole event for her birthday in January in her hometown of Amberg and I had been talking to them about it. I really wanted to go but it wasn’t going to work financially, and because I had also just started a new job a few months before. I’m sad I wasn’t able to be there; it looked like such a wonderful event. You could see in the pictures that were posted that she really had connected with people from all over the world.
Ella was known to be the oldest fan of Eurovision; she would go to every Eurovision song competition held over the last several years, which were held all over Europe. There were a lot of articles written about her because of that, and people began to recognize her. She became almost more ‘famous’ as the contest’s oldest fan, more so than because of her activity on Facebook. Some of the stars of the Eurovision song contest were at her birthday party, which was really nice.
PP: That’s amazing. She was quite the impressive and beloved lady.
CW: She was. I wish I could have been there My childhood friend, Steven, was also invited and we had talked about it, but there was no way I could make it. It looked like it was a great celebration. Her grandson had said that this would be the last time they’d be able to do something like this. He could see that she wasn’t going to make it much longer.
“[I]t was remarkable to see that even at 100 years old, travel is still possible. Seeing all those places that Ella had been reminded me to never lose my wanderlust.”
PP: Well, she lived a very full life, and the celebration seems like an appropriate honor in recognition of who she was.
CW: Definitely. You could see in the pictures and in the comments on her Facebook page that she had friends from all over the world celebrating with her. She was always open to all kinds of people: people of different faiths, ethnicities, races, sexual orientations. She was a devout Catholic and she wasn’t prejudiced against anyone or anything. Actually, she had made a connection to these friends in Bhutan who practiced Buddhism. They wanted to sing Buddhist songs or chants at her funeral in the Catholic Church. The church wasn’t open to that, though, so now there is some controversy in her hometown. This has all been unfolding over the last couple of days, but now it looks like the church might allow them to participate in some way. I hope they can find a way to compromise because doing so really speaks to who Ella is and how she lived her life.
PP: Remind us: What was it about Oma Ella that drew you to her so strongly and made you want to visit her in Germany?
CW: I had seen this article on Buzzfeed in 2012 and it was amazing: it was a video of Ella saying: ‘I’m 102 years old and I’m on Facebook!’. I thought: ‘That’s incredible!’ I had completed a Master’s degree in Political Science and part of the research I had done looked at how the internet can help people connect and have positive interactions offline too. People thought that the development of all of this technology meant that people would be in their basements, not connecting face to face; they also thought that the internet wasn’t for or would never be able to be used by older people. When I saw the video of Ella, I knew that both she and the situation were amazing and that I should try to friend her. My request was accepted and I clicked through her pictures, noticing that she had traveled to Asia, and all over Europe, and to the Faroe Islands, and to the Bahamas. It was incredible to see someone her age traveling so much. There were also tons of pictures of her with all kinds of people of all ages: young people, teenagers, middle aged folks. It was great to see someone who was so alive at her age.
I also really like traveling and had been to a number of places, so it was remarkable to see that even at 100 years old, travel is still possible. Seeing all the places that Ella had been reminded me to never lose my wanderlust.
“In so many ways, I have to credit where I am now to my trip to Germany and my time with Ella.”
PP: Can you share a moment or memory or two with Oma Ella that you will forever remember?
CW: You could really see that there was always a light in Ella; she looked at life in a really positive way and always wanted to appreciate the moment.
When we were together, we went to the Munich fairgrounds. That’s where they have all their fairs, like Oktoberfest in the fall. I was there in the spring and they were hosting the Spring Festival. There are all these stereotypes about elderly people: they’re depressed, not mobile, not interested in or can’t do anything. But there at the fair, Ella and I went down a giant slide together. She had her hands up and was laughing the entire time. There were also people there who were dressed up like zombies and she was dancing with them. She shattered all stereotypes of what an elderly person is ‘supposed to be’, and those are the moments that I’ll always remember.In fact, we went to another town festival and Ella was dancing with all these high school kids. She was always wanting to have a good time and enjoy herself. Ella told jokes that had everybody laughing. She was just really funny.
I also don’t feel like Ella was ever afraid of anything. She didn’t know how to swim and yet at this hotel in Munich, she was in the pool with me with a floatation device. She just wasn’t afraid. Her approach to life was really amazing.
So many times people say ‘no I can’t do this’, or ‘I won’t be able to that.’ But maybe those people are just telling themselves that they can’t. Maybe it’s all about your mindset. Ella showed me that if you choose to do something, you can.
PP: It sounds like Oma Ella taught you a lot of important life lessons: be present in the moment, don’t be afraid to take risks, you can do anything you put your mind to. How will Oma Ella’s legacy continue to inspire you?
CW: When I met Oma Ella, I was in a full-time graduate program, studying toward a graduate certificate in Digital Storytelling. I had recently quit my full time job as an admissions counselor and knew I wanted to pursue writing and more creative ventures: storytelling, photography, videography. It was during that time that I found out about her and Passion Passport and The Bucket List Initiative, so I finally had the time to take advantage of an opportunity like this and go.
When I was with Ella, I took a lot of pictures and recorded video, and when I came back, I put together this video story of what I learned from her. A lot of people really liked it. Fast forward more than a year later: I was freelance writing for a publication in Milwaukee and I interviewed the Director of the Museum of Wisconsin Art. A few months later, she contacted me about a job opening there, and I started working with her. I showed her the video that I made and she thought it was wonderful. I showed it to a bunch of other people too and now, in my role, I am in charge of making videos of events and living artists and such. I couldn’t see back then how all of this would connect, but because of that week and the fact that I took a risk and went for something that I really wanted, I now have this new career.
In so many ways, I have to credit where I am now to my trip to Germany and my time with Ella.
PP: Wow. Did you ever share that video with Ella?
CW: Yes, she saw it. I shared it with her grandson who showed it to her.
Thinking about all of this is crazy. It’s so cliché to say, but through all this I learned that you should never be afraid to try something new, or go after something you want. If you feel like something is missing, don’t be afraid to switch gears. When you open up a new window of opportunity, you might not see it paying off immediately, but eventually it will. These things are so cheesy to say, but so often, they’re true.
Thanks so much, Christina. And may your memory live on in all those who knew and loved you, Oma Ella.