“I don’t want to live to be 100,” Frau Bienkowski* said, stirring her coffee.
“A lady here turned 101 last week,” she said. “That’s not for me!”
Frau Bienkowski is 93.
When I met her for the first time, she was nestled in an armchair with a newspaper and an enormous magnifying glass on her lap. The walls of her room were decorated with black and white photographs. Her husband and her son sat politely in their frames, wearing suits, ties and pleasant expressions.
“I think your son has your eyes?” I suggested.
“No,” she replied. “He had my nose. His eyes were blue like his father’s. But you can’t see that from the photographs.”
Frau Bienkowski’s husband died in the war; her son in a traffic accident. When she was left alone with her son, her parents helped out. She never forgot it and when they grew old, and she had lost her son too, she nursed them by herself, until they too died. Now she is living in a home in west Berlin, close to where she grew up and she has been kind enough to accept my weekly visits.
When I came into her room last week, she pointed at my dress and said, “Look at that pattern! It’s beautiful!”
LSB had given it to me for Christmas. It’s the pattern of a painting by Klimt. It’s actually a skirt but I have transformed it into a dress with the help of a belt and a big black bow.
“I used to be a seamstress,” Frau Bienkowski said. “I notice these things.”
She worked in a shop on Kudamm, a famous shopping street in west Berlin. When it was fashion show season, she would stay up sewing until the early hours of the morning. She made ballroom dresses out of pure silks. The war interrupted her work and when she married she gave it up. She found it difficult, not working any more.
Many of her memories are of an occupied Berlin. “There was no talking to the Russian soldiers,” she said, “nor to the Brits either really. The Americans were all right actually.”
We talked about Prince William and Kate Middleton. “I wonder if the Queen will ever abdicate,” she mused, “and whether Charles will ever be king. The Dutch queen did; it was the right thing to do.”
She said she thought the Dutch royals seemed like a happy bunch.
Frau Bienkowski loves reading. She asked me to reach up to her bookshelf to take some titles down for her. She showed me a series of books about German royalty, and some stories of romance in India. I told her I was reading Anna Karenina. (still, the shame!). She said she had read it several times and seen the 1935 version of the film.
Next we read a little from the paper. Germany’s, former (as of yesterday) education minister Annette Schavan had been stripped of her doctorate from the University of Duesseldorf, for plagiarism. “They took it away, did they?” Frau Bienkowski asked. “Just like zu Guttenburg, she added, referring to the minister of defence, who resigned in 2011 after it was found that he too had copied large chunks of his doctoral thesis.
Frau Bienkowski grew up in a flat in a big house, where she had three very good friends who lived below. The group stayed in touch and only one moved to another area of the city. They’ve all died now but Frau Bienkowski keeps them alive in her head.
She met her husband at a dance.
I imagine that she was wearing an exquisite silk dress.
This morning, when I woke up missing LSB, I thought of Frau Bienkowski.
*not her real name.