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 B takes on “the modern condition”

“Nice haircut, Frau B!”

She pats the sides of  her head, self-conscious and pleased. “Like it? You’re the only one who bothers to notice.”

There’s a knock on the door. A young woman, slight and dark-haired, sporting a pale green uniform, walks in.

“Julia!” says Frau B. “Now you can finally meet Katechen, my little Iren.”

Julia and I greet each other.

“Julia comes from Spain,” says Frau B. “Don’t you?”

“Yes, ” says Julia and hands us both a cup of coffee.

“She speaks very good German,” Frau B says after she’s left. “She came here because there were no jobs at home. Just like you did!”

Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00134 / CC-BY-SA via Wikipedia Creative Commons

Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00134 / CC-BY-SA via Wikipedia Creative Commons

We talk about mass unemployment and the effect it has on the political landscape of Europe. Frau B was a child when Germany was in its deepest ever financial crisis.

“1929 and 1930 were the worst years,” she says. Even my father was unemployed for nine months. People said that if he had no work, it meant there really was none.”

“What did he do?”

“He was a precision mechanic. He was very good with his hands.”

“Something you inherited!”

“I sure did. I got his feet too. He had tiny feet, for a man.”

Screen grab from Daily Telegraph article of 27 January 2012

Screen grab from Daily Telegraph article of 27 January 2012

She takes a sip of coffee and continues:

“Hitler would never have come to power were it not for unemployment. See, he re-built the army and got people back to work.”

I tell her about Ireland’s Republican party, Sinn Féín, and how they’re currently enjoying a rise in popularity.

We agree that mass unemployment and disillusionment add to the allure of extremism.

Sometime later, when we are done talking about politics, Frau B mentions her grandmother who was born in 1838.

As a child, Frau B would spend long afternoons reading the Bible in her grandmother’s rural home. But it is a detail related to her Oma’s appearance rather than any biblical verse, which has stuck most in Frau B’s mind.

“My grandmother used to be bothered by a few little hairs, which sprouted above her lips. She’d tear at them with her hands until they came out,” she says.

Now Frau B notices a few hairs growing above her lips. “It comes with age,” she says. “I pluck at them when I can’t get to sleep.”

“Some people believe vanity is unique to the modern condition,” says Frau B. “It’s really not.”

As I observe Frau B rearranging her hair-do, and think about the events which led up to the horrors of World War II, I feel both comfort and unease at how relatively small our 70-year age-gap really is.