Frau Bienkowski hasn’t heard from her cousin in a while. As far as she knows though, she’s still living independently. The evidence comes from an acquaintance who passed by the house and noted that her name was still on the doorbell.
“Perhaps she just no longer answers the phone,” Frau B says.
The woman in question is about the same age as Frau B. In the family photograph that hangs on the wall, they are both little girls. They are sitting next to each other, in fancy dresses and buckled shoes. Frau B sports a short haircut, while her cousin boasts a mass of curls.
“My cousin always thought she was better than everyone,” Frau B tells me. “More intelligent, more beautiful; you name it.” “Even as a child, she had nicer dresses than me. I was jealous of her.
“I still remember, we were on a family outing once. We were about nine at the time. My cousin was wearing a beautiful dress, with short puffy sleeves. I’d never seen anything like it. The road we were walking on was being re-done. My cousin picked up some tiny balls of damp concrete, and rolled them around in her hands. Her mother told her to get rid of them. I guess she didn’t know where to put them. So, do you know what she did?”
“She placed them inside the puffy sleeves of her special dress! I thought it was a bad idea but I didn’t say anything. Of course, the concrete melted and the sleeves were ruined. Her mother gave her a thrashing. But do you know what I did?”
“I laughed. I laughed because she was getting a beating and not me. I was mean. Her mother said she’d beat me too if I didn’t stop laughing. That kind of thing was allowed back then.”
“What became of your cousin?”
“Well, she was single until late in life. No man was ever good enough for her. But she was widely admired for her looks. Men always gazed at her. My husband too.. he was no angel when it came to that kind of thing.
“There was one man in particular, a civil servant, who lived in her building and who liked her very much. He had a wife though. My cousin would never have contemplated going near him. But then, when my cousin was in her early fifties, his wife died of cancer. At the time, it was customary to spend a year mourning a spouse before moving on.
“A couple of months after his wife’s death, the civil servant sent my cousin a letter containing an offer of marriage. He explained that he had long been an admirer of hers. My cousin came to me for advice. I asked her whether she thought he was a decent person. She said she did. I told her that was enough. Attraction might come later. But at the end of the day, it was she, not me, who would be marrying him. I did warn her though. As a newly widowed civil servant, he would be in high demand. If she dallied too long, she might miss her chance.”
“So, what did she do?”
“She wrote back and said yes. He didn’t even wait out the full year before marrying her.”
“And did they have a happy marriage?”
“Like you wouldn’t believe!” says Frau B.“He lived to be in his nineties and she’s still going. “I do wonder what happened to the dress though. Perhaps it could have been salvaged, if they’d just cut off the sleeves.”