Frau Bienkowski and the Irish Convent

Frau Bienkowski was sitting by an open window, soaking in the sunlight. She gave me a faint smile. It was not her usual welcome. She was in pain.

“Every limb hurts,” she said.

We had been planning to venture outside the moment we got some sun. I asked Frau Bienkowski whether she thought she could manage.

Ten minutes later she was pushing her stroller around the grounds, naming flowers and telling me about the people she knew living in the neighbouring buildings.

Every so often she stopped and sat on the ledge of her stroller.

“Am I slower than you thought?” she asked.

“Not at all,” I said. “I’ve only ever seen you in your armchair.”

We passed two caretakers smoking at a back entrance to the canteen. Frau Bienkowski called over to them. “I was faster last year!” They nodded sympathetically and one of them, a young woman with a scraped-back pony tail and jet black hair said, “oh, the curse of biology.”

Frau Bienkowski told me she remembered what flowers were blooming when the Russians came. “You don’t forget a time like that,” she said.

After our walk we went for coffee. I ordered a latte. “What’s that?” she asked.

I told her it was a mixture of espresso and steamed milk. She said she’d try it next time.

We chatted about parents disapproving of mixed marriages. She said it happened lots after the war and I said that in Ireland in the past, a Catholic-Protestant marriage could divide a family forever.

“You know, you’re only supposed to stay an hour,” Frau Bienkowski said after two.

“Do you have something you need to do?” I asked.

“I don’t want you to feel obliged, that’s all,” she said.

“Frau Bienkowski, we have discussed this before. This is a pleasure.”

“Oh, very well.”

Back upstairs, Frau Bienkowski asked me to read from “Die Pforte zum Himelreich,” the book by Irish writer Una Troy which I brought her last week.

“I started it,” she said. “And it is very good. But my eyes became swimmy and I couldn’t read on.”

The scene I read was a dialogue between an eager 23 year-old upstart journalist and a 100 year-old woman in a convent. She was Ireland’s oldest person and he was vying for the scoop on how she’d managed to live so long. She gave smart-ass, wry responses.

I put on my best crotchety voice for the old woman and an effeminate whine for the young man. Frau Bienkowski laughed out loud three times.

“You should be a professional reader!” she said. “I can completely imagine that nun!”

When I left, Frau Bienkowski said, “You bring me such joy.” This time her smile was real. It made my day.

Frau Bienkowski’s Photograph

“How may I help you?” asked the chiselled librarian with grey hair and round eyes.
“Do you have any books in large print that you’d recommend for a 93 year-old?”

He typed into his computer and frowned.

“We have very few books in large print left,” he said. “The demand simply isn’t there. Old people are opting for audio books.”
“I suspected as much.”
“Wait though. Come with me. We do have selected titles.”

We snaked up and down the aisles at the back of the library. “Ah this one could work … and this! he cried, snatching a book every few shelves.

He left me with a pile, from which I selected Die Pforte zum Himelreich by Irish writer Una Troy, featuring nuns in small-town Ireland and an unconventional 100 year-old lady who stirs things up. I also took Ulla Lauchauer’s Ostpreußische Lebensläufe, roughly translated as “Biographies from East Prussia.”

“Yes, the story about the nun sounds interesting,” Frau Bienkowski, who was wearing green, said later.

Then I took out the book about biographies from East Prussia. “Can you bring me that photograph?” Frau Bienkowski asked, motioning to a frame hanging over her bedside table.

Frau Bienkowski balanced the black and white photograph on her knee. She turned on the lamp on her magnifying glass.

“This is my grandparents’ Golden Wedding Anniversary in East Prussia,” she said. “If you look carefully you can see the number 50 carved into the flower arrangement at the back.”

“We were a big family. That’s me at the bottom on the left,” she said pointing to a little girl with cropped hair and buckled shoes kneeling on the ground. “Those are my grandparents in the middle and those are my aunts and their husbands. These are my cousins.”

“She was killed,” she said pointing to an aunt. “So was she, my cousin too. He fled, and so did she.

“And this man” she said pointing to the back row of the photograph. “He was married to my aunt Anne.”

“She was very ill, and told him to flee alone. He did, and she died soon after. Years later we heard from him. He got away, and married again. But he said ‘She’ll never be my Annie.'”

“Yes, they are all dead now,” she said.

Later we talk about how her perm needs to be touched up, about how she would like some new clothes from the spring catalogue and how she left everything she owned at home when she moved into the nursing home.

“I don’t want to know what happened to it all,” she said.