by Erin Branham, HPCCR Volunteer
Her thick, white hair glistened like a sheet of satin. Almost as if ironed in place, every lock was as straight as rain yet appeared soft to the touch like a freshly fallen patch of snow.
You couldn’t help but notice Mrs. Hildegard Kappler’s hair. Even as she laid peacefully in her bed at Levine & Dickson Hospice House – Huntersville, Mrs. Kappler’s hair told the story of a debonair woman. A woman to whom presentation and order were really large matters. A woman who conveyed sophistication without the trappings of fine jewelry and demanded respect without uttering a word.
Mrs. Kappler’s grandson, Chris, welcomed me into the presence of a woman I would soon learn was every bit as remarkable as my first impressions foretold. Chris was eager to tell me stories about his grandmother – or “Oma,” the German word for grandmother – as her four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren affectionately called her. Over the next two hours, I was captivated by Chris’s accounts of her many accomplishments that became even more noteworthy in the humble context of where and when Mrs. Kappler’s story began.
Mrs. Kappler immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1931 when she was just thirteen. She and her mother passed through Ellis Island, and as it would turn out, so would Mrs. Kappler’s eventual husband, Hermann, also from Germany. The families were united by a common purpose – leaving a homeland they no longer recognized due to Nazi occupation. “Oma’s father didn’t like the way the SS officers looked at the young German girls,” recalled Chris.
I was transported to a place and time I’d only read about in history books, imagining young Hildegard, perhaps donning a traditional dirndl dress, setting her eyes for the first time on America’s shores alongside other immigrants hailing from Hungary, Ireland, or Poland. Some escaping fear and persecution, others famine and poverty. What must have it been like, I pondered, for Hildegard as she entered New York Harbor, spellbound by the massive statue and her mighty, outstretched lamp. A sight so breathtaking it overtook even memories of the dank and dreary conditions she endured along the arduous, seaborne journey. This girl, who had survived the chaos and confusion of Ellis Island, was the very same woman before me. Now so angelically quiet. So still. So serene.
Mrs. Kappler would remain in New York City, as Chris went on to explain, where she became a successful seamstress, even sewing formal gowns for “Miss America” and other beauty pageant contestants on her beloved Singer sewing machine. Her husband, a tool and die maker by trade, was enlisted to read German U-boat blueprints to assist in America’s war efforts. Though Mrs. Kappler and husband never forgot their Germanic roots and culture, they were fiercely dedicated to the United States and would go on to live what could be described as a prototype of the American dream.
That dream, as Chris’ story unfolded, was full of blessings but was not without its struggles. Mrs. Kappler, by then the mother of two young sons, followed her husband’s career with Niemand Industries to Statesville, North Carolina, leaving behind both city life and her sewing business. Entrepreneurial by nature, Mrs. Kappler not only continued making clothes for her family but also became a licensed real estate broker and local business owner. “A woman ahead of her time,” I recalled thinking. As I would later learn in conversation with her younger son, Doug, Mrs. Kappler even dabbled in stock trading, keeping a friendly competition with her husband on whose picks yielded a better performance.
In 1970, Mr. and Mrs. Kappler lost their eldest son, Chris’s father, in an auto accident at the hands of a drunk driver. Ever the matriarch, Mrs. Kappler assumed the mantle of responsibility for her family. “She held us all together,” praised Chris of his Oma, the affection, love, and admiration he had for her shining through as he recounted each cherished memory. Many of those memories were formed at Oma’s house around the dinner table. At Mrs. Kappler’s insistence, family meals were always formal affairs, with the sterling silver flatware placed in the exact order of its use. “Oma’s a stickler for doing things right,” said Chris, chuckling, while I grinned envisioning Oma, dressed to the nines, aghast upon discovering a misplaced salad fork. If it’s possible to know you’d get along with someone from mere stories, I knew at that moment Mrs. Kappler and I would have agreed on many things. “A woman after my own ‘Type A’ heart,” I shared.
As Chris described Mrs. Kappler’s later years, a picture emerged of a woman as compassionate as she was courageous. With her Christian faith as her guide, Mrs. Kappler cared selflessly for her husband as his health declined, just as she had done in earlier years for her mother and stepfather. Her final years were spent in a senior living community in the town of Davidson, which is where my husband and I lived for nearly seven years. I did not believe that commonality to be mere coincidence.
The day after my visit, I received a call notifying me of Mrs. Kappler’s passing. I was comforted in knowing that her transition had been eased by the wonderful care the staff at Levine & Dickson Hospice House – Huntersville provided. This volunteer experience has left an indelible impression on my heart, not just because of the exceptional woman Mrs. Kappler was but because of the full and abundant life I experienced in that room. To equate hospice solely with death, I have discovered in the near year I have spent volunteering with this wonderful organization, is to miss much of the mission. Yes, hospice care is about easing the dying process, but it’s equally about celebrating the lives of those we are fortunate enough to encounter, whether it is only for one evening like I did with Mrs. Kappler, or for weeks or many months. I will forever remain indebted to Mrs. Kappler for imparting this important lesson. Fittingly, her obituary reads, “a strict but caring mother, and a teacher of doing things correctly.”
Before I left the hospice house that cold, November evening, Chris and I each took Mrs. Kappler’s hand to pray. I entreated God to comfort His faithful servant of 96 years and our sweet Oma, as I had quickly grown comfortable calling her, while caressing the same hair I had earlier admired. It still looked perfect. I have a feeling Mrs. Kappler wouldn’t have had it any other way.