My German is leaving. Last Tuesday I left for work just as the sun came streaking over the houses, slowly rolling away from my quiet little corner neighborhood where all seemed copasetic. Nine hours later I rolled back around, barely paying attention in my late afternoon, post work, haze until a bright new sign caught my weary eyes. For Sale. For Sale? The Gingerbread House across the street is for sale?
I let out an audible gasp as the realization hit. Who would keep me informed of neighborhood gossip now, like which neighbor is a bipolar alcoholic and which one calls the fire department when they get lonely (allegedly)? Who was going to march over within five minutes of my return home, brandishing a birthday bouquet in hand that the florist left with her when I wasn’t home to accept the delivery? Who else was going to chide me from their porch swing that “it’s about time” in a brusque German accent when I wait too long to mow the grass and let it become Hobo House Jungle City? This woman once called me while on vacation in Key West to make sure my corpse wasn’t rotting inside my Single Girl Home because she noticed my car hadn’t moved in a few days. She’s colorful and blunt and so Uber-German that among her official pets are two large pony-sized German Shepherds. I say official because she also feeds the deer from the water reservoir nearby, the birds, and a roving band of stray thug cats. She went so far as to build a pet door to her basement for those feline hooligans and then had to flea bomb her house. She is also hands down my favorite neighbor and now she’s leaving. My German is leaving me!
On move in day in 2013 I had followed the moving company truck for the short trek over from my old apartment. Yes, despite my thrifty box o’ wine ways and penchant for wearing sneakers until my foot actually slides out of the giant hole I’ve worn out on the left one’s outer edge, I Adulted Up and paid professionals to schlep my worldly possessions. At 33, I felt too old to con friends with promises of pizza and beer (plus everyone now has a ‘bad back’), and had vowed not to repeat the stressful events of my last move in 2006, which included driving an accidently too large 22 foot U-Haul down a main thoroughfare in a small to mid-size city daring jaywalkers to go ahead and try it fool (!). Trust me, this was money well spent. I let the truck back into the one car driveway and rolled my not-quite-yet-hooptie-status sedan up to the curb across from my new 30-year fixed mortgage decision. For those that enjoy side notes, the car crossed that hooptie threshold in 2015, right around the time I broke the handle off the glove box, rendering the compartment obsolete, and also the interior handle off the driver side door so I have to close it with the door pocket down by my leg.
I had barely disengaged the key when a tall woman appeared on the sidewalk beside the passenger side door. I couldn’t place her age. She had a dyed blonde bob and her blue eyes were framed with large, black plastic glasses, magnifying them to an owlish degree. She was wearing a faded denim overall dress over a pink T-shirt and I placed her anywhere between 50 and 70 years of age. I hauled myself out of the car and she greeted me with “It is finally the day! What took so long?!” The story of how I came to be Lady of the Manor of Chez Huh House is a tale for another day but it involves some proper twists and turns (and one Costco Card) that protracted the length of time my abode sat empty. I didn’t know this woman yet so I just smiled and exclaimed “It is!”
Olga and I exchanged names as I came to stand beside her on the sidewalk and shake her hand. Ok, Olga isn’t her real name but anonymity, protection of the innocent, names have been changed, blah blah. Her real name is just as super German and the only way it could be more German is if it actually were Olga. Or Helga. So Helga peers down at me from behind her owl eyes and raises an eyebrow. “Is it just you or are there more coming?”
“Oh my gosh! Look at you! A woman alone to take care of everything!”
This would be the first of many, many, many times I would hear a similar iteration on the topic of my hardy independence. I amended my age estimate upward a tad. “It is a good neighborhood. You come over after you are settled,” she directed me. Ok Gretel I thought and off I went to unwrap newspaper from dishes and direct two sweaty men where to place the couch.
Over the next few weeks Olga would hail me from across the street as I lugged cardboard boxes to the curb for recycling days. One twilight she beckoned me over for another sidewalk chat.
“I think you work the same hours as my David”.
I was working second shift at the time, and some days as I would get ready to leave I would notice her ferrying him away and coming back alone less than 20 minutes later. They only have one vehicle, a white Bronco looking job I silently dubbed The O.J. Simpsonmobile, thus betraying my age because I am definitely old enough to have watched the freeway chase as it was happening. We were standing by the Simpsonmobile’s back bumper then, me reading the black sticker on it proclaiming, When You Get to the Gates/YOU WILL be Judged, as she explained, “He is almost retired. Me, retired for years. You know, I am the original Cougar.”
Wait, what? Did I hear that correctly? My eyebrows must have risen because she elaborated. “Oh yes, I am 75. He is only 60. I am the original Cougar. This was way before Demi. Back then we call it Puma.”
I glanced at the Pearly Gates warning sticker plastered on the bumper again and burst into laughter. She continued, “I thought he was joking the whole time we dated. I laughed the whole way through the ceremony. No one thought it would last, including me! But here we are, almost 40 years later!” P.S. Dear Readers, she was 38 and he was 23 when they got married. Apparently, I should start fishing in the baby pool at this stage in my life.
Our relationship was cemented a few months later when I awoke to a banging shaking the walls of Huh House on a frigid Sunday morning in February. I cracked a sleep crusted eye open and tried to get my brain to catch up. What the fuck? Is that the door? What time is it? Maybe they’ll go away…. The insistent rapping continued, each knock a reverberating command. Not going away. I flung back the covers and tried to find some pants. Is this the zombie apocalypse and someone needs in, knowing my expertise? Was there another meltdown at TMI and I’m being told to evacuate to my preordained safety zone? This, just as an FYI side note, is a large shopping mall according to the emergency preparedness pamphlet I get every January. Yes, in case of nuclear fallout you will find me sipping an Orange Julius. Why else, in the name of all that is holy and sane, would someone rouse me from a warm cocoon on a 20° winter Sunday morning? Why?? IS SOMEONE IN NEED OF CPR??!!!!
I raced around the corner to my kitchen door where the banging was originating from to find Gerda peering at me impatiently through the door’s built in window panes. Her black Russian fur cap was pulled down to the rim of her owl lenses. Before I could open the door, or even utter a word, she demanded through the glass “Where were you?!”
“What? When? Where?” I sputtered as I ushered her in from the cold. The violent rousing from my slumber and accusatory German on my doorstep had me discombobulated and spewing out Journalism 101 base questions to suss out the story. I covered my arms over my chest, leaning against the counter as I tried to form a coherent question with more than one syllable. Though I had found pants, there definitely wasn’t time for a bra. I settled on the eloquent “Ummmmm, what are you talking about?” in a somewhat squeaky what the fuck is happening voice.
“Yesterday, I go to your hospital where you work but you are not there. Where were you?”
Huh? I exhaled a non-toothpasted breath. “Ummmmmmm….. it was my day off….. Can you please start at the beginning?”
“Yesterday I get off the treadmill in the basement; you know I do two miles every day.” Of course you do, Ingrid. “I step outside for some air, slip on ice. Splat. Hit my head. David does not know what to do when I come in. He calls the ambulance.”
“Oh my! Are you okay?”
“Oh yes, I am fine. Doctors say is just a little bleeding on my brain,” she said in the same manner one might use to remark on a rainy day in April. Oh look, rain. Oh look, just a small subdural bleed causing me vertigo and perhaps death if it spreads and I don’t monitor myself carefully the next few days. What’s for dinner? That was her exact tone.
“They take me for pictures of my head and I meet your coworker. I tell her you are a good egg.”
“Oh?” I could feel my brow furrowing in quizzical amusement now that it was apparent no one needed immediate chest compressions and an AED.
“Oh yes. She agreed. I tell her how you bring us cookies at Christmas. No neighbor here does this!” Bestowing Yuletide offerings to neighbors is a thing I was raised doing. When I moved into the Huh House I resurrected the tradition despite my agnostic inclinations. I felt all domestic living in a real neighborhood instead of double bolted Unit 8 of Generically Named Village/Commons Apartment Complex and I wanted to be a good neighbor. It’s a small way to be kind. Plus, little neighborly tip, if you give your neighbors a dose of holiday diabetes once a year they may occasionally shovel snow from your sidewalk. Good fences make good neighbors but so do peanut butter reindeer cookies.
“Okay, okay. I let you go now. I just wanted to tell you I went to your hospital. You know, we feel better knowing you live here.”
About a week later I picked up a cheap grocery store bouquet of flowers and knocked on the oft painted front door of the Gingerbread House. I honestly couldn’t tell you what color it was then. In the past five years it has been three different colors. Gerda likes to shake things up. I studied the brown shingle siding trying to figure out that the material was as I waited out the expected barking that followed my knock and hustling of large dogs to another room before the door opened.
The Gingerbread House is a barely 900 square foot affair built in 1929. The exterior walls are lined with brown shingles, the roof is green, and ivy crawls through the gutters. The front of the house sports an antique door older than the house itself, flanked by two windows replete with shutters and flowerboxes. The front porch runs the length of the house. Waist high box shrubs mostly hide the white railing encircling the porch but don’t conceal the white hanging porch swing and matching white rocking chairs. It’s a scene straight out of Hans Christian Anderson and at Christmas when they string lights to rim the house it makes me think I could walk over and pluck peppermint off the walls.
The front door is a step up directly into the kitchen, bright and cozy with barely enough room for two around a little center island where Olga was rolling out little squares of dough for dinner. I grew up helping my Nan roll out similar squares. First generation immigrant or 10th generation removed, we Germans like our dough.
“You are a good girl,” she said as I handed over the bouquet and inquired how she was feeling. She shrugged. “I am fine. I get dizzy and have to sit. They say I would. Otherwise, no problem. Come, see what we are doing in here! You have a house now, you will see the job is never done!”
I felt obliged to follow her over the threshold from the kitchen to the large living space that comprised half of the house. When I had dropped off my neighborly diabetes offering in December the space was dark wallpaper with at least two cuckoo clocks. Did I mention she’s German? Now it had a soft yellow glow and white wainscoting, an effect that highlighted the floor to ceiling built in bookshelves on the back wall. Apologies if I’m suddenly spouting Home and Garden TV porn but it made me want to move in with them for the bookshelves alone. Their belief in the veracity of The Rapture put a hard stop to me pushing my dresser across the street but I figure if I do get Left Behind they won’t mind if I throw some logs on their fireplace and help myself to their bookshelves. Given my agnostic leanings they have concerns for my soul. Given their fondness for right wing talk radio I have concerns for whom they last cast a Presidential vote. Turns out political and religious differences do not preclude good neighborship. Crazy talk, huh?
As I stood there absorbed in my HGTV fantasy, Olga cut in “You know this was two little rooms. When we moved in I bug David every day to tear down the wall and make it open. Every day he says ‘Yeah, yeah, we’ll get to it’. I get tired of waiting.”
Damn my eyebrows. One or both of them are always rising when this woman tells a story. I could feel both of them going up in anticipation.
“I get tired of waiting so I bring home a sledgehammer myself. His face when he comes home that day. I did not know was a load bearing wall.”
In their little house it was probably the only internal load bearing wall. In my mind, all I could imagine was her goggled up, wielding a sledgehammer and muttering to herself as bits of plaster rained down. I’m pretty sure that’s exactly how it went down. Her husband put in a few support pillars immediately and she had her open space. That’s my German.
After the for sale sign went up I mustered up my inner Betty Crocker and took over a loaf of strawberry banana bread in case they’re gone before the peanut butter reindeer this year. I wish they were moving for a happy reason. David retired early and they found their income sliced in half. They simply can no longer afford their home of almost 20 years. After scouring listings across the country, they found a place several states away where the cost of living is substantially lower. I tried to say it would be an adventure, change is exciting. Her exact words were “I’m too old for adventure. I thought I would die here.” That’s my German. That’s my blunt, honest, original Cougar praying for my soul so I can come with them during the Rapture, rolling pin in hand, ready to do what she must, German. I’m going to miss her.