One old lady’s quest for a fish sandwich

LSB and I were out walking in Charlottenburg this weekend, when we happened upon an old woman sitting on her Zimmerframe.

It’s not an unusual sight in this part of town, known primarily for its elderly population and the leafy neighborhoods they frequent.

We would have walked right by her, without a second glance, except that she gestured at us to come over and handed me a handwritten note, wrapped in a five-euro note.

In case this sounds implausible here is a picture:

IMG-20170731-WA0011(1)

The note says: “Please buy me half a smoked fish in a sandwich (salted fish) No salad! ROGACKI.”

I haven’t eaten fish in a decade but I do know Rogacki. The family-run fish shop, located on the Wilmersdorfer Straße shopping street, has been there since 1932. It’s an institution and you can smell it a mile away.

The old lady was wearing a breathing apparatus underneath her clothing. “Fish.. Warm.. No lunch,” she said in between gasps, then smiled sweetly in anticipation.

I nodded, as if processing a routine request.

“What on earth..?”said LSB as we made our way to Rogacki. “Why do things like this always happen to you?”

I can only assume I was born with the kind of face that invites old ladies’ requests to buy fish sandwiches (Smoked. No salad).

We knew there was something wrong as soon as we turned onto Wilmersdorfer Straße.

For one, it didn’t smell fishy.

The lights were out.

The shutters boarded up.

“No!” we cried theatrically. “WHY?”

It was an hour past closing time.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that one cannot return empty-handed to an old woman gasping for breath and in need of a fish sandwich.

But that’s what we had to do.

She looked up in happy expectation as we returned, presumably relieved we hadn’t made off with her fiver and carefully crafted note.

“Closed,” I said, gesturing wildly, before remembering she wasn’t deaf.

“Closed?” she said, rasping. “Oh!”

She looked crestfallen. I asked her if I could get her anything else instead.

She didn’t understand.

“Polish,” she said. “Little German.” (It explained the spelling of Rogacki.)

I offered her the fiver back. But she was not ready to give up.

“Penny,” she said.

“Yes!” I replied. Penny is a supermarket nearby.

“No Penny.”

She held up two fingers and moved her arm around.

“Warm fish..” she said.

I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. I looked over at LSB but he looked just as confused as I did.

We had no choice but to try again.

“Me” (she pointed at herself) “Wait here,” she said and stroked my arm in appreciation.

We set off again.

“I have no idea what she was trying to say,” I said to LSB.

“Maybe there’s a fish place two doors down from Penny?” he suggested.

There wasn’t but we did pass a bakery.

I peered desperately into the glass display, my crazed expression attracting the attention of a young cashier.

“Do you have any smoked fish?” I asked. “You see, a lady gave me a note and…”

Her look, a combination of complete incomprehension and mild contempt, caused me to trail away.

Then, suddenly,  among the salami rolls and cheese and tomato baguettes, beckoning like a jewel, I discovered it.

One half of a roll, with a piece of smoked salmon slapped upon it.

I pointed at it enthusiastically.

“Could you heat this up for me?” I said. “Please?”

“For here or takeaway?”

“Oh, definitely takeaway!” I said, picturing the old lady gasping for breath as her stomach grumbled.

It wasn’t salted. It wasn’t smoked. But it would have to do.

She placed it in a bag, which was pleasingly warm to touch. It cost €1.50.

We returned to the old lady.

“Ah!” she said, beaming. “Warm?”

I nodded.

She smiled widely, as I tucked €3.50 worth of coins into the handwritten note, and handed it back to her.

We made to leave.

“Wait!” she said, and with an enormous effort, heaved around to reach into the basket of her Zimmerframe.

She handed me a sweet in a purple wrapper. Devastated, she looked at LSB.

“We’ll share!” I said, again gesturing with excessive enthusiasm.

She took a deep breath and smiled.

“Schönen Tag noch!”

“You have a good day too!” we said and walked away, relieved, yet bewildered.

How long, I wondered, had she been sitting on her Zimmerframe, waiting for a fish sandwich? And does she do it every day?

 

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When the world gets smaller

When I came in, her eyes did not light up as usual.

She tried to fake it, a little, but her smile was all wrong.

I wasn’t in good form either. I was cranky from spending too much time indoors wedding-planning, while the sun shone tauntingly outside.

As so often happens, small frustrations had given birth to a greater sadness.

Earlier that week, Frau B’s telephone had stopped working. The man who came to fix it asked her to dial a number she knew by heart. The only one that came to mind was that of an acquaintance she’d lost touch with. She got through to the answering machine and didn’t know what to say.

It was humiliating.

She couldn’t call me. My mobile number is too long for her to remember, let alone to dial.

We’ve tried before.

Frau B keys in the digits too slowly and gets cut off mid-way through by a dial tone.

We’ve resigned ourselves to this fact, and she knows she can rely on me to get in touch instead.

But there aren’t many others she can call.

“Everyone I knew is dead,” Frau B said, as if she had to justify it.  “If I didn’t have you….”

She trailed off.

We both needed escapism, I decided, and reached to the shelf for a book.

It’s another one full of stories about early twentieth century Berlin.

Usually, the descriptions of the streets, cafes and institutions that defined the era prompt delighted interruptions from Frau B.

“My father would take me to that funfair!” she will say. Or, “Oh yes, that café! Full of artists! We’d only ever pass by and look through the window.”

Today though, I got through several pages uninterrupted.

A bad sign.

She was listening though, so I continued.

Finally, I got to a passage about death masks.

Totenmasken!” she said suddenly.  “I remember seeing some in Vienna!”

“You did?” I asked, a little startled. “When were you there?”

A long time ago. But she remembers everything. The city’s main museum is home to the death masks of Beethoven, Mahler and Klimt.

Frau B can still see them all. And as she began to speak, a cloud began to lift.

She has a cartographic mind, with a remarkable ability to mentally navigate the places she used to know.

One of the best presents I ever got her was a laminated map of the world.

She looks at it through her magnifying glass, while I hover over her.

“That’s Ireland,” I’ll say. “It’s shaped like a teddy bear.” Then, drawing my finger all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, I’ll land somewhere in America and say: “And that’s where my sister lives.”

Frau B’s  life now takes place within a room of 20 square meters. Day-to-day, her greatest sojourn is down the corridor to the dining hall. Sometimes, if she is feeling energised, she will wheel herself all the way to the terrace.

She is meticulous in her use of space. Order, for her, has become synonymous with control.

In the last year or two, she has begun hiding things.

She squeezes bars of chocolate into the bottom of her sock drawer and tucks brooches into a box that slides behind the books lining her shelf. She slips banknotes beneath the insoles of her shoes.

She says she is scared of things being stolen.

They never are. Sometimes I think her fear is more about losing herself.

Institutionalised and immobile, the world is ever closing in.

But deep inside her, preserved with care: a rich tapestry woven from the people she once knew and loved, the places she explored, the personal tragedies she endured and the triumphs she savours.

A wealth of memories a death mask can bring back to life.

On bombs and sock drawers

“When will we open the bottle of wine?” Frau Bienkowski asked.

We agreed we’d have it the next time LSB came around.moser-roth-edel-bitter-85

“I was very sad over Christmas,” she said. “There were many times I could have cried.”

Then, probably changing the subject, she continued: “I think someone stole my chocolate.”

I was pretty sure I could fix one of those things. I began opening drawers tentatively.

Frau B has recently developed the habit of finding elaborate hiding places for her personal items.

They’re so good she often can’t find things herself afterwards.

I got lucky after rummaging through her sock drawer. Three bars of Aldi’s Moser Roth, buried deep within a knot of nylon tights.

“Well, there you have it,” she said, retracting her accusation of theft by implicature alone.

“Now, tell me about Alicia*!”

Alicia is my six-month-old niece. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee and charmed practically the entire island of Ireland with her visit at Christmas.

Nothing makes Frau B happier than hearing about her.

“You must have some photographs,” she said, pointing at my phone.

I did. Alicia and her parents in front of the Christmas tree. Alicia dressed in red sitting on an armchair with her grandfather looking on benevolently. Alicia playing with wrapping paper. Alicia with her aunt Kate Katharina.

Frau B sat in her wheelchair, the phone clasped in both her hands, her face lit up in delight.

Babies have that effect.

She told me about her son, Uli, born in 1940 as the bombs were falling on Berlin. Her husband at war, she stayed for two years, taking cover in the cellar during the raids.

Then, in 1942, mother and child moved to the safety of the countryside in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

They stayed in a guesthouse until 1945.

“If it hadn’t been for the war,” she said, “I would say they were the happiest years of my life.”

She and her husband exchanged countless letters.  I wonder what became of them but don’t ask. Frau B has spoken before of the pain she experiences thinking of all the possessions she parted with when she moved into the home.

In Mecklenburg, she became friendly with a protestant priest. He got on famously with Uli, perhaps on account of the affection he had for his mother.

“He told me that if my husband weren’t to survive the war, he’d marry me in a heartbeat,” said Frau B.

“Yes,” she continued. “I could have married three or four times in my life.”

In the end, it was just once. Her husband came home, injured. And the priest was killed in cold blood when the Russians arrived.

*not her real name

Goodbye Frau Bennett

She was beautiful and wisplike.  I passed her often in the hallway of the nursing home.  She would sit in her wheelchair beside the rabbit cage. When she didn’t know you could see her, she wore an expression full of sadness and longing.

But whenever she saw me pass, her eyes lit up and she smiled. Her hearing was very poor. But that didn’t stop us communicating. I would motion to the rabbit or gesture to the window to deliver my verdict on the weather. She would always nod warmly in agreement.  We were gentle with one another – a source of mutual appreciation. She carried her melancholia with grace.

Her name was Frau Bennett. If we had been contemporaries, I think we would have been friends.

The same couldn’t be said of Frau Bienkowsi though, who was quick to dismiss her.

“Her mind’s gone,” she declared a few times. “She never says a word.”

I knew the first part wasn’t true. Frau Bennett was frail but I knew her mind to be in tact. The second observation was more plausible though. The two sat at the same table at dinner and I found it easy to believe Frau Bennett had a hard time getting a word in. She didn’t seem like the type to want to battle for floor time.

Frau Bennett had a son and grandson who lived locally. They didn’t visit much but she once confided in me that she sat in the hallway in case they came by.

I met them both at the nursing home’s Christmas party last year. They arrived late. My heart was already beginning to ache as I watched Frau Bennett sit quietly with her eyes fixed on the door.

Her son, a tall and rather strapping man, probably in his 60s, discovered  I was Irish by chance and struck up a conversation. He told me his father had been part of the British government that ruled West Berlin after the war. It confirmed my suspicion about how Frau Bennett had got her name. Many British soldiers stationed in the country ended up staying to marry German women.

Frau Bennett’s son was keen to speak English to me. It was the language of his childhood before German began to dominate. I got the impression he missed it. He seemed to have inherited some of his mother’s wistfulness.

Frau Bennett would have known my face but not my name. She was aware I was a friend of Frau Bienkowski. To my astonishment, she once asked me if I liked her. I said I did and asked her back. Gently and politely, Frau Bennett indicated they weren’t the best of friends.

I could understand that stance though it sparked some cognitive dissonance. Frau Bienkowski and I get on because we are different. I appreciate her warmth, her openness – even her outrageousness. But she is dominant and headstrong too.  She is a talker, not a listener. She is enormously kind. But she is not especially tactful.

I can imagine that quiet and perceptive Frau Bennett disliked her dinner companion’s forthright and – at times- perhaps abrasive style.

A week or two ago, as I was pushing Frau Bienkowski into the dining hall for dinner, I noticed an empty seat next to her. I didn’t think too much of it.

But during my last visit, I asked her how Frau Bennett was doing.

“She’s dead,” Frau Bienkowski said. “She went into her room and didn’t come out again.”

The rabbit has gone too. The cage disappeared around the same time Frau Bennett did.

‘I think I’m invincible,’said Frau B

Frau Bienkowski turned 97 last month. LSB and I were among the five guests at her birthday party. There were ham sandwiches for the others and a vegetarian omelet for LSB and me. Frau B even treated herself to a glass of red wine. After taking just one sip, she announced it had gone to her head. She simply can’t drink the way she used to. Join the club, I thought.

Shopping for a 97 year-old isn’t easy.  In the end I hit gold with a book about Charlottenburg. It features black and white photographs of the area as it once was. Frau B was delighted to encounter the streetscapes from decades past. Many of the places have since changed beyond recognition.

A few days later, I got a call from Frau B’s niece. We’d met for the first time at the party and had exchanged phone numbers. The news wasn’t good. Frau B had had another fall. Her leg was broken and she was in hospital.

I arrived with a bunch of tulips and a bag full of clothes. At the hospital reception, they asked me for Frau B’s date of birth.

“March 18th, 1919,*” I answered immediately.

She was lying in bed next to the window – her eyes shut.

I tiptoed towards her to check she was really asleep.

“Wer ist es denn?” she asked, barely opening her eyes.

“Das Katechen,” I answered. “I’m sorry if I woke you.”

Her eyes opened wide.

“I wasn’t asleep,” she said. “I was just resting my eyes.”

“How are you?”

“Oh, fine, considering. Oh my, would you look at those tulips! I was only thinking earlier how I hadn’t got any tulips for my birthday. And yellow too – my favorite.”

Over the next while, visiting the hospital became a bi-weekly routine. Frau B was very particular about her requirements. She wanted her own underwear, a couple of skirts, her dressing gown and some hairspray. The fact she was spending her entire days in a nightie and unable to leave bed was irrelevant.

During her time in hospital, Frau B shared her room with two ladies. The first was Polish and according to Frau B, didn’t speak a word of German. (I’m not so sure of this as Frau B is a talker and even at the best of times, it can be hard to get a word in.) The other woman came from Saxony and was taken into hospital on her 80th birthday with heart trouble. They both managed to maneuver to the side of their beds to eat meals facing each other.

Frau B’s appetite increased dramatically in hospital. She was most partial to the pork chops on offer. The nurses caught on and served her enormous portions. All this was heartening.

Meanwhile though, there was worrying talk of operating on the leg. At first Frau B said she’d prefer not to undergo surgery. But after a few days wearing a heavy boot she got restless and said she might consider it after all. This was despite the fact that the doctor had said: “If you were my granny, I’d advise you not to.”

When I voiced my concern about the risks of getting an operation at her age, Frau B said: “Well, Katechen, there are worse ways to go than during surgery..”

In the end though, she decided against it. In her own words, the prospect of “losing her reason” was worse.

Frau B was stoic, if frustrated, in hospital. She dealt well with the indignity of having to ring a bell every time she wanted to go to the toilet. (And having to ring again for a nurse to clean up once she’d done her business.)

But that wasn’t the end of it. One day when I came to visit, I found a sign on the door, asking all visitors to report to the nurses before entering the room.

The winter vomiting bug had broken out and both Frau B and the lady from Saxony had caught it.

I had to wear scrubs, gloves and a face mask to enter.

Frau B had been vomiting but today, her woes had been reduced to diarrhoea.

“Pity I can’t see your dress beneath the scrubs Katechen,” she said. “What are you wearing?”

I told her and she seemed to approve. “I was thinking actually,” she said. “I have a necklace I was going to throw out. But it would go well with your brown jumper. You can have it, if you like.”

Frau B returned to the nursing home a week ago. She’s now in a wheelchair and she can’t go anywhere without help. She’s still wearing her huge boot cast.

“Katechen,” she said from her new position by the window.

“I think I’m invincible. Nothing seems to kill me. Maybe God has decided He just doesn’t want me. Maybe all the other dead people asked Him not to let me in!”

I said I thought that was unlikely.

*the year is right but I changed the date to protect Frau B from potential unwanted attention from her… massive online following.

Frau B and the elusive Christmas package

She picked up but the conversation lasted only a few seconds.

“Kätchen, can you call me back? I’m putting on my stockings.”

I gave her ten minutes.

“Okay, they’re up,” she said after just one ring. “But I’m in a right state.  Wait till I tell you.”

Frau B’s niece, Krista, had sent her a package for Christmas. Unfortunately, there’d been no one at reception to receive it, so it ended up being sent back to Hamburg. In the meantime, Krista developed thrombosis in her leg and had to be hospitalised. The package landed with a neighbour, who had no choice but to pop it right back in the post in the hope that this time, it might reach its destination.

The plight of this package had been plaguing Frau B for weeks. Now, with the first week of January drawing to a close, it had finally arrived.

But Frau B did not see a cause for celebration.

Choco stack

When it comes to Ritter Sport, I think I can handle it.

“I’m ready to cry,” she said. “It’s this wretched plastic wrapping. I’ve been trying to remove it for hours.”

“Besides,” she continued. “I don’t know what Krista was thinking. There are 12 bars of Ritter Sport in here and countless packets of biscuits. Where does she expect me to put them? I’m hardly going to eat them all!”

“Well,” I said, taken aback at her agitation. “I know I can help you with the chocolate. And, as for the wrapping, I’d just leave it until I come on Sunday and then we can sort it out together.”

“I know she meant well,” said Frau B. “But it’s ridiculous. I can’t even get to the cupboard to put anything away.”

On the surface, Frau B might be accused of lacking in graciousness. But that would be to neglect the reality of what life it like for a 96-year-old.

Unlike many of her peers, Frau B has managed to maintain the strength of spirit required to express indignation. If that were to disappear, I would know the end is near.

The tirade against her well-meaning niece managed, briefly, to deflect attention away from one or all of the following:

Her swollen, knobbly hands and the arthritis that cripples them – preventing her from carrying out the simplest of tasks, like tearing open a sheet of cellophane wrapping.

The real prospect that her last remaining blood relative might die before her.

The difficulty of mustering up the energy to get from her armchair to the shelf.

The indignity of dependence.

Bearing all this in mind, I too, chose to deflect.

“Guess what LSB suggested,” I said.

“What?”

“That we spend next New Year’s Eve with you.”

Frau B had rung in 2016 sitting alone in her room, dismayed that the nursing home hadn’t made an effort to mark the occasion. The disappointment was all the more real because last year, she’d had such a good time celebrating that she had to be escorted back to her room. The half bottle of wine she’d downed had left her giddy and unsteady on her Zimmerframe.

“I hope to goodness I’m not alive by then,” she said.

“Well if you are,” I said, “we’ll be sure to bring some champagne.”

She laughed.

“I don’t really like champagne. But I suppose you can bring me beer.”

Frau Bienkowski’s ex-boyfriend

“Did you have boyfriends before LSB?” asked Frau Bienkowski.

“I did,” I said. “But I can count them on one hand. Did you have any relationships before you met your husband?”

“When I was a girl,  I had a crush on a lad who went to the boys’ school nearby. He was quite good-looking and certainly the best-dressed among his peers.”

I nodded understandingly. (Who am I to question the selection criteria of a lady with 70 years more dating experience and a vastly superior fashion sense?)

“We were friends for a while,” said Frau B. “But then he went away to do an apprenticeship with Siemens.”

“Did you keep in touch?”

“We wrote each other letters but agreed not to be exclusive.”

wullllll

Here is a tangential picture of LSB’s sillouette

“What happened when he came back?”

“Well, one night, we all went to a ball. My mother made me a red silk dress; it really was exquisite; a perfect fit.

Months later, the boy told me that he’d always remember how well I looked that night.

Then suddenly,” said Frau B, pausing for effect, “out of nowhere, my bubble burst and he no longer paid me a scrap of attention.”

“Oh no!” I said. “Why not?”

“At first, I had no idea,” said Frau B. “Then finally, one of his friends admitted that he’d told my crush a bizarre story about me hating his guts!”

“What? Why did he do that?”

“I don’t know. Jealously probably. Anyway, we didn’t talk for months but eventually re-established contact. We wrote each other letters for years and years after that – even after we’d both married other people!”

“How did your husband feel about that?” I asked.

“He didn’t really like it,” said Frau B. “I had to reassure him sometimes. Once, when I was out walking with my husband we saw the man again. He didn’t look that great any more. I told my husband that now, were I to meet the man for the first time, I wouldn’t give him a second glance.”

“Did that reassure him?”

“It did,” said Frau B. “You’ve got to reassure men sometimes, don’t you?”

“You do,” I said, and told her all about my dating history in exchange.