WARNING: This post is not funny. So, if you started the new year in a fragile state, skip to this instead.
Many people consider Germans (especially those over a certain age) notably rude, unforgiving of mistakes, and humourless. I confess, even having befriended a German exchange student in high school I remain friends with to this day, I subconsciously held this view when I first arrived in my adopted homeland. So, it’s not surprising that upon first meeting our upstairs neighbour via a brusque notice to wet mop the stairs, I set myself on the idea she would become my sworn enemy with sitcom-worthy battles over tacky garden ornaments, loud music, and wretched smells of stewed sauerkraut and blutwurst (it should be noted I know of no one here who makes bloodwurst stew, but plenty with hideous garden decorations).
To be honest, I never made friends with our neighbours in any of the last three cities we lived in the US, and that was when we had our own cozy little homes and our own lovely gardens with plenty of space between us and the next house. Maybe it is just that living in a three-flat house with a shared garden forces you to interact, whether you are inclined or not. Or maybe it is that we lucked into a situation you could only describe as divine. In any case, it turned out the woman I was fully prepared to fear and loathe took our family under her compassionate wing, as if we were her own misguided, mush-mouthed, long-estranged children. Yes, it turned out her first note left in our mailbox was the start of a careful and patient tutorial on German life and multi-family co-existence. It was only after returning from our first weekend getaway trip a few weeks after we moved in that I realised how much she was looking out for us. Noticing the flat was quiet, she had called the Hausmeister to register her concern for our well-being. Never had it occurred to me she would worry after us with our extremely limited language skills and a small child in tow. From that point, leaving a note (usually covered with meticulous drawings from girl) has been a required task before we head off on our little adventures.
We have learned the dates and customs of German holidays via the sweet scenes she sets up on the windowsill of our landing. Our children have basked in the love and praise only a gentle Oma can bestow. I have been reminded (often) of the importance of patience, slowing down, and caring about people around me. I have been inspired to get off my butt and get outside in sub-zero temps, because if an 89 year old can trek 3km through the frosty air, then so can I! It is not an understatement to say my life, our lives, have been forever changed by knowing this woman. I am struck by both the poignancy and fortune that it took landing in a house with an octogenarian in a foreign country where I spoke almost not a word of the language to find such a profound connection with a neighbour.
She suffered a Schlaganfall about two weeks ago and passed away this Monday, on Epiphany. I broke the news to girl with the Trauerfeier card while wearing sparkly Silvester glasses and handing her a plate of cookies. I am historically incompetent in these situations, but that’s something for another post.
The house feels oddly still (not that she was up there throwing all hours ragers, at least not frequently). Like a child, I keep listening for the door to open and the stairs to creak as she heads out for her daily walk. I am still thinking through the pronunciation of each word for the rehearsed chat we have on the stairs after I’ve picked the kiddos up from school. The tiny Frau on the old Wetterhaus she bequeathed to girl has come out, letting us know the temperatures have gone from unseasonably warm to frigid again. In a couple months I suppose we will have a new neighbour, probably around the time we would have been jointly celebrating her 90th and boy’s 2nd birthday. Would have been? Will be.
vielen Dank für alles, unsere liebe FG.