The stairwell was dark, but standing in a dim light at the top was an old woman. She was a stranger to me, someone I would have passed on the street without recognizing and yet there was a familiarity. I was fairly certain it was her. The last name above the door buzzer on the small white apartment house was hers. I tentatively asked “Lina?” and she, also tentatively, answered “Jeneefer?”. I don’t remember climbing the rest of the stairs, but suddenly we were hugging tightly and she was saying “Oh Jeneefer, oh Jeneefer…you called me…” and I finished “Mutti”.
When I sent a last minute postcard to Lina through the German website Postalo, I signed it with all of our names; my father's, mother's, sister's and mine. Somehow Lina knew it was me on the stairwell and not my sister. Perhaps because as she repeated several times over the course of our visit, we had a connection. She also cared for and loved my sister, but she was a baby when she lived in Germany and was just nine months old when we moved back to the United States.
My sister was just behind me on the stairs and Lina enveloped her with her warm embrace and crooned “Baby, baby, you were just a baby.”. She hugged us both until my mother climbed the stairs. Lina clung so fiercely to her that I was a little afraid one or both of them would collapse. My father was next and she broke away from my mother long enough to tease him about his hair loss. Forty two years is a long time and yet, there was still a strong emotional bond in our shared past.
She invited us in to her cozy sitting room, where her husband was sitting. We admired the pictures of her daughter and her grandchildren and she spoke fondly of them. My brother in law and nephew came in to be introduced and she welcomed them too. My sister was pleased (Who wouldn't be?) when Lina joked that she and her son look like brother and sister.
Lina has had a hard life, but she has retained her tender heart, sense of humor and optimistic outlook. She has always had to care for her husband and cannot leave him alone. For years she worked as a nanny and as a housekeeper to support them. As she said she always took care of other people and didn’t always take care of herself. She has had some severe health issues and faces another important doctor’s appointment next week. But she said she doesn’t feel any angst and what will be, will be.
We could have stayed in her cozy sitting room, listening to her talk forever. She told us we were her last American family and so her English wasn’t so good anymore, that she hasn’t really spoken English since she cared for us. She said my name, Jeneefer, with such deep emotion that I could sense how much she had loved me. After thinking about her for my whole life, it was a nice thing to feel. My sister loved how she said it so much, she called me that for the rest of our trip.
Lina said that although she cared for so many American families, we were one of only a couple that she remembered well because she felt the connection with us. She said her memory isn’t good, but she remembered details like a visit from my father’s parents and how beautiful my grandmother’s face was. She also remembered little things I used to say and do. She said when it was time for her to leave, I would beg to go home with her. I think she liked that.
Time to leave, a bittersweet moment. How would we tear ourselves away from her? For that matter, how would we leave her warm, cozy sitting room and head back out into the cold, dark night? Time had fallen away and all that mattered was our deep happiness at being together again. Sitting close together, Lina was clinging to my mother and my mother was grasping her hands, both continuing to speak half in German, half in English. Of all of us, I believe Lina missed my mother the most. We took pictures of our group, The lighting wasn’t good and the pictures came out grainy, symbolic of the inadequacy of a camera in capturing the importance of this moment.
We hugged and kissed and sobbed and hugged and kissed and sobbed some more. I really didn’t want to go. Lina and her husband don’t get around easily, but when we descended the stairs to leave, they followed us down. We said Auf Wiedersehen and turned and waved again and again as we headed down the cold, dark street to pile back into our rental car. It was freezing outside, but Lina remained on the sidewalk and waved until we disappeared from view.
Lina says that not everyone for whom she has cared has remembered her. I have always remembered her, but feel some guilt that we didn’t continue to send her correspondence over the years and may have caused her some sadness because of this. I think she thought we forgot about her. Yes, we moved a lot, yes we were busy with our lives, but Lina deserves to be remembered. Before we left I thanked her for taking such good care of me. I will never forget her again.