Our neighbour, Frau Frau, has moved. I had heard she was leaving, but we’ve been away, and I only just learned she is gone. However, somehow, I’m not sure why, I felt her absence even before realising she had gone.
Superficially her house looks the same. Her window boxes – at every window, upstairs and down – are bursting with brilliant red geraniums. I can still see the painted gnome on the patch of lawn at the back of her house where it overlooks the fishing lake. And her mobile aluminium clothes line still stands in front of the house. But the house has been oddly still all week.
Perhaps it's the clothes line that triggered, subliminally, my awareness of her absence, for I had become used to seeing it hung with sheets or towels or night dress or trousers most mornings when I rise. Even though I rise early, Frau Frau’s wash was hung out before I was up.
She first caught my attention right after we moved to this house on Katzenstrasse when I saw her cycle out one morning, rain hat and jacket against the chill. In her early seventies – at a guess – she reminded me of the famous landlady my husband once had, years and years ago, when he lived for a time in Germany. Every morning, he has reminded me, again and again, she would cycle out for fresh rolls from the baker for his breakfast. For nearly 25 years now, he has noted that I do not cycle out each morning for fresh rolls from the baker. When I saw Frau Frau on her bike that morning, she looked to me to be the kind of woman who did.
I never met Frau Frau, though I waved a few times from my first floor kitchen window. I don’t know that she saw me, but it looked as though she might have. She never waved back. I was told she doesn’t speak English, and with my baby-steps German, it seemed pointless to try to introduce myself.
So, not knowing her name, I called her Frau Frau because she seemed, well, like the archetypical Frau, the sort of traditional householder I’ll never be. I imagined her house to be as clean and neat as ours is cluttered. Each of her sparkling windows was hung with a white lace curtain. When we moved here, a week before Easter, a small tree in her garden was hung with painted Easter eggs, an Austrian tradition. On Easter Sunday, I watched from the window as she greeted guests, teenagers lagging behind their parents, apparently come for dinner. I took them to be her children and grandchildren. There were no embraces as she met them at the door.
Soon after Easter, the eggs were removed from the bush, and in her deep window casements there appeared a display of dolls, each about 18 inches tall, dressed in blue and white check. Soon after that, I knew without being told, the metal bracket under her windows would be fitted with window boxes. When I told my husband they had been put into place and planted with flowers, he said, ‘Are they red geraniums?’
Of all the tidy houses on Katzenstrasse, Frau Frau’s house was the tidiest. Around the side of the house, her timber was stacked precisely, each of the sticks cut to the same length, as is the custom here. Nearby, a wooden bird feeder was mounted on a stout support. Here also a cast concrete bird bath stood; under it, a concrete white goose stretched its neck upward. Walking by, I often saw mallards from the lake ignoring the goose as they scoured for fallen seed under the feeder.
Frau Frau cut the grass herself, pushing the electric mower over the smooth deep green lawn. A tall woman, still sturdy and strong, one hip lifted slightly as she walked, giving her a somewhat rolling gait. But she worked along side much younger people when the timber was cut – by electric saw – and wheeled in a barrow around the side of the house. Looking closely, I could see the flowers in the window boxes had been covered, protecting them flying particles. And when the saw had been packed away, there she was, hosing away the fine sawdust.
On the days when rubbish was collected, I checked her house for the yellow plastic sack – the Gelbe Sack – of recyclables that is collected on a schedule I’ve not yet figured out. If one appeared at her gate, I felt assured that it was time to put our out. There was about Frau Frau the predictable that I found reassuring and grounding.
In fact, that’s perhaps why I recognised she is gone. On rubbish collection day, the space by her gate was oddly empty. Too late I realised I should have had my Gelbe Sack in front of our driveway. Still it didn’t click. It was two days later when the air of vacancy about the house moved me to ask another neighbour.
‘Oh, yes. Saturday was her first night in her apartment.’ Saturday, the night we were away.
Looking more closely today, I can see the small cues that must have alerted me to the change. Though all ten of window boxes I can see from our window are still crowded with geraniums, behind them one or two windows are bare of curtains. From behind the red blooms, they look blank. In spite of the flowers, the house looks expressionless.
I had been told she had sold the house to a young couple. It’s simply too large and requires too much maintenance. Her apartment is closer to the city centre, right on the bus line. I know the area; there many bright buildings, each several stories high, surrounded by well-maintained grass. I’m sure it will be convenient and far less demanding. But I wonder at the loss of space, the view across the lake with its ducks and swans, and the beauty of the wood, green now, soon to be gold and amber.
I hope Frau Frau will be content in her apartment. Friends, family, clubs, church – all of these may keep her busy now that she no longer has to mow the lawn and stack the firewood. But the tiny red-and-blue painted gnome, abandoned under the shrub in the still-tidy garden, haunts me. Will the young couple hang the bush with painted eggs next spring? Will the windows again bloom red all summer long?
I miss her already.