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

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.