Falling leaves

The doors of the lift slid open and I found Frau B sitting in her wheelchair, waiting.

Heaviness hung in the air. It was a bad day for me to be late.

“I’ve been so sad this past while,” she said when we were back in her room. “I couldn’t hold back the tears.”

We looked out the window at the tree. Its stark crown stood out against the grey sky. A gust of wind swept a handful of orange leaves off its lower branches. We watched them swirl to the ground.

“The weather doesn’t help,” she said.

We’d arranged to clear out the wardrobe, a task I was not looking forward to. Frau B is a back-seat tidier.

“No Katechen!” she will say as I stand haplessly before the wardrobe. “Hang it up so the zip faces left!”

“No!” she exclaims when I do what I’m told. “Put it over there with the blouses.”

We got the job done, and by the time I’d closed the wardrobe door, Frau B’s sadness had morphed to anger.

I found out when I tried to convince her that a sticker might be the solution to an ongoing problem she’s been having with her television.

Frau B’s fingers are crooked and hook-like so she often ends up pressing the wrong button on her remote control.

This results in a maddening situation where she cannot remove the teletext from the screen.

My suggested solution, as with all uncooperative technology, is to turn the offending device off and on again.

But there’s little point if you don’t know where the on button is. So I’d brought along some luminous stickers I thought could be used to mark the right button.

Frau B was having none of it.

“That’s not the on button,” she insisted when I showed her. “It’s somewhere down here.”

I politely persevered.

“NO Katechen!” she snapped. “That’s NOT where it is!” 1478964532403

I put the stickers away.

“You meant well,” she said.

I reached for the book and we continued the story about Rosa Luxembourg, which had captivated Frau B last week.

I was a few sentences in when she asked me to stop. “Let’s just chat instead,” she said.

“Sure.”

Frau B’s sadness-turned anger had morphed into remorse.

“You’re my one and only, Katechen” she said. “You really have no idea where I’d be without you….”

Her eyes were glistening and her gaze reached far beyond me.

“And me without you!” I said, with that false kind of brightness that stops you from welling up.

“And I was so snappy with you!” she said.

“Nonsense!”

“My mother always said I would find someone to take care of me in old age,” she said. “And then you came along.”

“You see, mothers are always right!” I said, and made her laugh.

We sat there for a while, looking at the falling leaves, safe in the knowledge that this kind of melancholy too would lift.

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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.

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.

Ever the Bridesmaid…

Frau Bienkowski hasn’t managed to marry me off yet, which is a pity since she likes a good wedding. She’s always talking about William and Kate’s and is the first to know about the appearance of a new photograph of Prince George.

She’s interested in failed marriages too. Like those of former president, Christian Wulff who, scandalously, separated twice. And she thinks it’s high time his successor, Joachim Gauck marries his long-term partner. After all, Frau B says, she accompanies him to most official events.

source: Creative Commons Robbie Dale www.anonlinegreeworld.com

source: Creative Commons Robbie Dale http://www.anonlinegreeworld.com

Luckily for us both, our appetite for wedding-related stories has recently been whetted by living vicariously through my sister, who got married in Philadelphia in July.

Frau B was there every step of the way.

She was thoroughly briefed on the suitor. And on how he met my sister.

(“Everything is possible online these days!” she had said approvingly)

She knew all about  the navy bridesmaid dresses, which we ordered online for $25. She knew my sister was making her own wedding cake. And she had a good knowledge of the guest list too.

Ever the stylist, she worried about how I would wear my hair on the day. She suggested I get the same cut I had last December.

I have documented my fear of hairdressers here before. Believe me, they get worse when you cross the Atlantic. My cutter had scraggly blue hair and dreadful manners. She refused point-blank to cut the shape I wanted, instead insisting, “It’s 2014  dude. You sister is getting married! Try something new.” She also accused me of frequenting “old lady salons.” (She’s right obviously; hip salons don’t have libraries attached.) I ended up with a stupid cut. Relieved I wasn’t the bride.

Frau B was also privy to my pre-wedding music-related woe.(PWMRW; primarily affects  amateur musicians, according to DSM X)

I had brought my violin back from Dublin at Christmas after my sister hinted she might want my (other) sister and me to play during the ceremony.

Things were going okay at first, though I hadn’t played in years. My fingertips were getting tougher and I was playing halfway in tune. Then one night, when I was doing my floor exercises (as you do) LSB tried to step over me to get to the couch.

Except he tumbled over my open violin case instead. I watched as if in slow motion as he landed, knees first on top of the instrument.

Snap. Crack. An expletive.

I twisted out of my yoga pose faster than you can say “downward dog” in time to see my E string spring loose. Then the A string. Then the bridge collapsed. It was all very traumatic.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

I had to bring it to the Geigenbaumeister. He fixed it for €10 and told me he’d had a Stradivarius in earlier that week. Frau B told me I’d got lucky. She was right. Could have been much worse. Could have been a collapsed Stradivarius bridge.

When I visited her last week, Frau B said: “Tell me everything about the wedding. Then show me the pictures.”

I told her that my sister was objectively the most beautiful bride there’s ever been.

That the wedding took place in a medical museum which boasted among its displays a gigantic colon. (Available for guests to view before dinner).

That everyone survived the violin duet.

That the cake was spectacular.

That my tough big sister had to try really hard not to cry during the (self-written) vows.

That I had to try even harder.

When I showed her the pictures,  Frau B said. “My! What long hair your sister has got!”

Christmas with Frau B

Willy Brandt wouldn’t really have been my type,” Frau Bienkowski says, examining the Tagesspiegel’s full-page spread in his honour.

“Nor mine” I say.

“He was a bit of a womaniser.”

“Well, just as well he’s not our type!”

Willy Brandt  source: Wiki Media

Willy Brandt
source: Wiki Media

She laughs. “Shall we get some coffee?”

“Sure!”

“So Katechen, tell me about your week.”

I tell her about my friend’s visit and our trip to Dresden. And about work and the Christmas parties I’d been to.

She tells me her niece is arranging a little Christmas party for her and that the cooks downstairs have agreed to roast them a goose.

This will be Frau B’s 95th Christmas. She has decorated her room with electric candles (real ones are deemed too hazardous in the home), a bunch of deep red flowers and a table cloth she made herself.

We agree that Christmas is an event choreographed by women and enjoyed by men.

“I remember my father standing by the fire once. It was just after Christmas and he was saying ‘Oh, it’s a wonderful time of year! I could do this all over again.’ Quick as lightening my mother piped up ‘No wonder – you didn’t have to lift a finger! ’”

Frau P smiles. “I’ll never forget that!”

I take out my gift for Frau P.

It is poorly wrapped in grey tissue paper.

She opens it gingerly and fingers the picture frame.

Because she has impeccable manners she says immediately: “Oh, it’s lovely!”

But I can tell she hasn’t seen it properly yet. I wait for a moment while she examines it more closely.

“Is that… us?” she asks.

“Yes!”

“But when..?”

“Do you remember my parents when my parents came to visit in the summer?” I say.

“Oh yes!” she says. “Thank you, Katechen – that makes me really happy!”

“Now,” she says. “It’s my turn.”

“What? Frau B … you’re shouldn’t have.. ”

She hands me a little package wrapped in reindeer-themed paper. “It’s just five bars of chocolate,” she says. “You know I can’t get out to the shops.” Then she presses an envelope into my hand.

“Open this at home,” she says. “It’s for you and Andrew. I made an attempt at writing but you know I’m no longer capable of it.”

I stammer a thanks and tuck the envelope into my bag.

I pick up the book about the Irish nuns.

(My current fine on it is €8.75)

“It’s amazing how long we’ve been at this,” she says. “We are just so good at chatting!”

“I reckon we’ll have it done by this time next year,” I venture.

“Oh come on Katechen,” she says. “How long are you expecting me to live?”

“Oh, there’s life left in you yet!” I say – brightly because that is the only way to talk about death to a 95 year-old.

Later on at home, I open the envelope. Inside is €30.

I can’t make out much of what it says in the card inside but I can discern the word “Katechen.”

A stitch in time

The last time I visited Frau Bienkowski I was wearing a red cotton skirt. The pattern featured lots of identical girls and boys holding hands and strolling past apple trees.

“What lovely material,” she said, motioning for me to come over so she could have a closer look.

“Yes, I love it,” I said. “But the problem is that the elastic at the waist has come loose and I’ve got into a terrible habit of tying it into an ugly knot to stop it falling down.”

“Bring it to me next week and I’ll sew it up.”

“Oh no..”

“Do. I can’t guarantee that it’ll be pretty but it’ll do the trick.”

I called my mother on Skype. I was deeply ashamed of my elastic knot. It stood for both incompetence and laziness.

“You should let her do it, Katzi,” my mother said. “I’m sure she’d love to do something for you.”

So last Friday I went to the Turkish market. And as well as purchasing six avocados and three mangos, I bought some elastic and a little sewing kit.

“Did you bring the skirt?” Frau Bienkowski asked the moment I entered her room last Saturday.

“I did. And pears too.”

“Good. Now, let me have a look.”

I handed her the skirt and rummaged in my bag for the sewing kit and the elastic.

“Can you thread me a needle?”

I tried but Frau Bienkowski wanted a double thread.

I tried again.

“Oh but that’s a little too short, Katechen,” she said.

I tried a third time. This time Frau Bienkowski approved.

“Good,” she said. “Now, how about you either read to me or tell me about your week while I get a start on this.”

I could have told her about my week, which was rather eventful, but I got distracted.

Frau B’s hands were flying. She tore out my ugly knot of elastic and started weaving stitches furiously. The waistband was restored in minutes.

Then she asked me to put my finger and thumb on the flap where she’d placed the last stitch and told me to come over to her armchair so she could measure my waist.

Her hands moved the elastic easily about my waist.

With a few marvellous swoops, she sewed it in. She wasn’t even looking at what she was doing. When she saw how astonished I was, she said: “But Katechen, this was my job. You never lose the feel for it.”

My red cotton skirt used to live at the bottom of a large wicker basket. It shared its home with an enormous plastic nose, several berets and a pair of bee’s wings. I used to match it with ugly purple beads when I pretended to be the Queen of England.

Wearing the skirt while inter-railing in the summer of 2009.

Wearing the skirt while inter-railing in the summer of 2009.

With the terrible dawn of adolescence, my dressing-up basket was cast into the bottom of a basement wardrobe.

Years later I re-discovered it and found that the skirt’s loose elastic made it a one-size fits all. The queen’s skirt had turned boho-chic.

I took it with me when I went inter-railing in 2009 because it was light and didn’t crumple easily. I also fancied myself as some kind of honorary gypsy in it; a fantasy I indulged in while gazing out the windows of the slow trains which hauled me through eastern Europe.

Frau Bienkowsi, her fingers moving like those of a master pianist across a keyboard, broke the silence.

“Katechen,” she said. “I don’t want you to say Sie to me any longer. “I’m not Frau Bienkowski any more. I am Lotta.”

“Auf die Minute!”

Auf die Minute! Frau Bienkowski says, glancing at the clock which hangs to her right.

This is always my greeting. It is the third and final thing that happens before we shake hands.

First I knock twice on the door. Frau Bienkowski says “Ja” in two syllables, which she stresses equally.

And as I am pushing open the door and making my way past where her coat hangs, she says it.

Auf die Minute! – to the minute!

Once, Frau Bienkowski had another visitor – a lady – when I knocked on the door at precisely 3 o’clock.

Auf die Minute! they said in unison, because Frau Bienkowski had told the lady that I come exactly on time, every time. And we all laughed.

“So gehört es sich auch,” – that’s how it should be – I retort as I take the hand she has outstretched.

Sometimes Frau Bienkowski playfully teases me about my punctuality.

“You must pace around the corridors!” she says.

“The corridors? Are you joking? I go for a walk in the gardens!”

It is a source of immeasurable pride that my punctuality amuses and reassures a German. A 94-year-old German at that.

I have not told Frau Bienkowski that she alone benefits from my impeccable timekeeping and that back home, my parents are bemused by what they called my “scurry” – a trademark dash out the door which I perform with my shoulders hunched forward, my head down and usually missing an item vital to the appointment I am trying to make.

Today Frau Bienkowski is wearing a yellow jumper with short sleeves. She matches the apricots I have brought her.

“I couldn’t find the Turkish apricots which you requested,” I tell her. “These are Greek.”

“Oh, perfect,” she says.

“And they are still a little hard. But I chose them deliberately because they go soft so quickly.”

“Absolutely right,” she says, digging out her purse and pouring coins onto the table. “Now, what do I owe you?”

“Nothing,” I say. “I get a monthly travel allowance of €25 for visiting you, which I do not use because I walk. I think it’s well spent on apricots.”

“Katechen,” she says, as more coins topple out of her purse. “I swear to you, I will not ask you to get me anything ever again if you do this!”

“But I don’t need the…”

“Katechen!”

“They cost €2.29,” I say.

“Good,” she says. “Take €2.50.”

“Ha! You must be joking.”

Frau Bienkowski digs her fingers through the netting of the plastic container. She gropes the apricots, pressing them with her forefinger and thumb.

“Let’s have one each,” she says.

I take them and rinse them under the tap in her toilet sink.

To the left there is a plastic shower seat, where Frau Bienkowski sits when she gets her back washed.

“It is the only thing I can’t do for myself,” she has told me many times. “I can still do everything else. I can get dressed, and make my way downstairs for lunch. I always say, as long as I still can, I will…But I can’t reach my back any longer.”

We sit by the window, munching apricots.

It is a dull day, but every now and then, the sun breaks out from behind the clouds.

On the window sill is a line of pots.

“Look,” Frau Bienkowski says, pointing to the pot of carnations I brought for her birthday.

They are deep pink and in full bloom.