It was dusk before Walter finished his weeding and knocked on my back kitchen door. I greeted him with a kiss on his neck, still warm from his work in the sun. He smelled like earth. He set a bulging damp grocery bag of green beans from his garden on my welcome mat with the same care that he took off his shoes. He never tracked dirt into my house. He laid orchids from a florist across my kitchen table. White orchids with ruffled edges and bright yellow centers, like an egg perfectly cracked into a saucepan.
He always brought flowers when he wanted to talk about our wedding.
“Why do you waste money on flowers without smell? It would be better if you clipped dahlias from your garden or even basil. These hothouse flowers have no smell,” I said.
Walter positioned the orchids like an aisle across my table. “I went to Fred’s wedding. All the women wore orchid corsages, even his granddaughters.”
He picked up my salt and pepper shakers, German farmers with round peach faces and faded red circles on their cheeks. The pepper shaker wore suspenders and lederhosen, like ones my husband once wore. He stood the pepper shaker at one end of the aisle and the salt shaker at the other. He glided the salt shaker down the aisle. With his other hand he bowed the pepper shaker. “Can’t you see it? You will wear a white dress that touches the floor, and I will rent a tuxedo from Olson’s.”
I snatched up the orchids. “You’re being silly. People our age shouldn’t dress up and marry like young people.”
He took the orchids from me and unsnapped pruning scissors from the gardener’s belt around his waist. He clipped the ends before placing them in water. He took my hands in his. We stood almost eye level. The slight suntan on his face made his wrinkles appear to be from his work in the sun, not like other men my age whose skin just looked tired from holding on to the body. He stroked the back of my hands with his thumbs. “Dorthea” was all he said.
“Maybe we can marry in a church,” I said. He kissed me and went out to the garage. Walter got ideas in his head. A few weeks earlier, his friend had married in a church. The bride not only wore an orchid corsage, but also a veil. “To cover her wrinkles,” I had told him. “When you’re seventy years old, you wear a veil for different reasons.”
When he started the lawnmower, I went to my bedroom to pack up his things. So many of his clothes hung between mine. I moved each hanger so not to miss any. Every shirt was a button-down shirt. Some long-sleeved, others short. Some plaid, others striped. These serious shirts made his work in the garden seem as important as when he had worked in an office. He told me he had always worn a tie and hat with his suits.
I opened every drawer in the bathroom and found his morning rituals tucked between my face cream and powder. In his black leather shaving bag, I put his tough bristle shaving brush, his razor, his tweezers and his wooden-handled toothbrush.
When I handed Walter his bag, I said, “Imagine Anneliese opening her mother’s bathroom drawers and finding a man’s razor.”
I would have preferred a fight with my quiet neighbor who shared my bed or even a word of protest. “You can come back after Anneliese’s visit,” I said.
“When will you tell her?”
I brushed grass clippings stuck in the sweat on his forehead. “After she meets you.”
I waved my dishtowel from my doorstep as he walked through the short lawn that separated our houses.
“I’ll miss you,” I yelled.
This made him happy; I knew from the way he shyly bowed his head. I wanted to call him back to kiss the top of his smooth head and stroke my fingers through the tufts of white hair that circled his suntanned bald spot, but I had to prepare the house for Anneliese and her husband, Gary. And secretly, I liked telling Walter when to come and go from my house. He was so different from my husband, Albert, who had scheduled our time in our bedroom as strictly as his breakfast of coffee and eggs at seven every morning. For two years, I had missed this about Albert. I ate eggs and drank coffee alone every morning. But then Walter had begun leaving grocery bags filled with green beans on my porch swing and ripe tomatoes in my mailbox. He would mow our lawns at the same time, connecting our yards with perfect, parallel lines. One morning as we served one another hot tea I remembered that before I married Albert, I had never liked eggs.
I collected my cleaning supplies from the shelves in my laundry room. After Albert died, I had bought this house for this reason, an entire room for my laundry and cleaning. The room even had a tiny sink. Hot water from the sink swirled with the Pine-Sol, sending white foam to the top of the bucket. As I carried the bucket to the hall, the bubbles crackled like spring rain on siding. I crawled down the hall into my family room, rubbing the baseboards with the warm Pine-Sol water. The warm water calmed my hands.
As I cleaned, I rehearsed how I would tell the women in my bereavement group about Anneliese. “You will now have to call both my daughters the one-with-children.” The women always referred to my daughters as the one-with-children and the one-without-children. They could not get their American tongues around the German names Kasmira and Anneliese. I would never tell them that Anneliese changed her named to Lisa when she was eleven years old.
I dampened another rag to dust around each picture frame. What would Lisa Putnam name her baby? Putnam, another name Lisa gave herself, neither Wallace nor Puttkammer, neither her husband’s nor mine. Anneliese once asked how I could know myself when I took names only given to me. Lisa Putnam’s questions did not worry me. I was not like her. I did not need to separate from others to know myself. I wondered if she would let her baby name itself.
Anneliese did not tell me she was pregnant. Walter warned me that I had gotten ahead of myself and should not assume. But I knew Anneliese, she was the daughter who always had a reason to call, and she had telephoned three times in two weeks “just to talk.” Then she had asked if she could make her yearly visit two months earlier. I believed she was finally pregnant.
Why else would a woman suddenly want to see her mother? I would be her child’s Oma. As her baby’s Oma, I would remind Anneliese that there were things I knew that she did not. She would see me as wise when I cured her baby’s earache with pot lids. I would warm the pot lids on the stove, cover them with towels and hold them to the baby’s head. When the baby stopped crying, Anneliese would look at me as she had before she was eleven years old, the year she stopped listening to me.
I wet a Q-Tip to collect crumbs between the oven and the counter. Albert once asked what I thought of as I cleaned. I had told him, “Cleaning.” I found a certain peace in concentrating only on scrubbing black dots of mildew from my yellow plastic shower curtain. But how could I just think of cleaning with Anneliese’s secret? I also thought of Walter. Warmth gathered below my breasts and flushed the back of my neck. I too had a secret, but I would not tell Anneliese mine.
Anneliese dropped her suitcases just inside the front door. She stood only one step in the doorway. Her dark high-heeled shoes rooted on the square of linoleum. I coaxed her to step into the room and follow me to the guest room. Her hair drooped close to her head. I had seen the choppy, uneven style on magazine women, but on Anneliese, the hair looked tired. She also had red highlights in her brown hair. When I mentioned this, she told me the color was auburn.
Anneliese never hid her displeasure with the house. I followed her to the bedroom and put things back in place. She picked up a pillow, ran her fingers over the brown corduroy fabric, and dropped it on the wrong chair. I placed it back on the correct chair. From the front door to the bedroom she scattered herself, kicking off her shoes in the kitchen, draping her decorative scarf over the La-Z-Boy, laying her sunglasses on top of the television. I remembered a younger Anneliese running through the house after school, her winter clothing in a trail to her bedroom, as if she must shed her skin and leave the shell behind her.
“Nothing changes here,” Anneliese said. This was how Anneliese talked to me. Gary would come later in a separate car, she said. Work, she muttered. This surprised me. I thought of my sons-in-laws in the way the bereavement women talked about them: the good son-in-law and the lazy son-in-law. The good son-in-law should have driven his pregnant wife.
I sat on the bed in the guest room and hoped she would tell me the secret reason for her trip. She had arrived late. The next day would be our only time to shop for the baby. I would need to tell her what to buy. Lisa Putnam did not know much about babies.
Anneliese was also dissatisfied with me. She tried to fix a stubborn curl that always flipped onto my cheek. I did not stop her. She needed to practice mothering. I liked seeing her that way.
“Anneliese, tell me why you came.”
“Not now, Mama. I’m so tired from the drive. Can you give me a minute to myself?”
“Of course. It is tiring to carry a little one inside.” I stood up, and she took my hand.
“A little one?”
I patted her cheek. Her eyes looked weary. A first pregnancy would be hard on her forty-year old body. “I knew about the baby when you called.” I squeezed her shoulders. “Mothers know these things.”
“You thought I would drive seven hours to tell you I was pregnant?” She closed her eyes.
“You wanted to tell me face to face. Daughters need their mothers during these times.”
“I’m not pregnant. I’ve told you for years we aren’t having children. Besides, I would have told you that on the phone.”
“You are not pregnant,” I repeated. I refolded the towels on the bed. Anneliese had wrinkled the room. The bedspread needed ironing. Anneliese had rumpled it when she flopped her suitcase in the middle of the bed. I picked up the throw that had slipped to the floor.
“Then why did you come?” I asked. She had another secret. A real secret. One I had not guessed.
From my bedroom window, I could see Walter propped up by three pillows in bed. He held a book on his lap, but he looked out the window. We started this way, leaving our shades up in the evening, waving to one another. I began sleeping through the night when I knew someone cared when I slept. He waved and shrugged his shoulders as a question. I shook my head no. I did not know whether he asked if I had told Anneliese about him or if I was enjoying the visit.
After I shut off the lights, I shook my head no. No baby. No reason for Anneliese to need me. No way to change how Anneliese had looked at me from the time she was eleven years old. That year she knew more than her mother. An eleven-year-old child should never know more than her mother. A child understands this.
Anneliese was eleven years old when I did not know more than her. Her backpack was heavier that day. “You are collecting rocks?” I asked her when she heaved her backpack onto the kitchen table after school.
“No, Mama.” Already, I heard the difference in the way she said Mama. The way she still said Mama as an adult, as a sigh, a weary acceptance of me as her mother.
She opened a large schoolbook, what I thought was a schoolbook. “Where are you from, Mama?”
“Germany, Anneliese. You know that.”
“No, Mama. What town are you from?” She pressed her tiny finger to the page of the book and did not speak. “Is it here?”
I looked over her shoulder. Her finger pointed to my town on a map of Germany and beside her finger was a yellow star circled in red. I stared at the star.
“Very good, Anneliese. You are learning to read maps in school,” I said. I kept looking at the yellow star.
Then her finger moved on top of the star. “Do you know what this is?”
“No,” I said.
“Yes, you do. You have to know.” She tapped the star with her finger, that small, little child finger. “Mama, they killed people at this camp in your town.” Her teacher called them camps. Anneliese knew about camps where Albert and I took them in the summer, where we built fires and taught them German folk songs. This is what I thought of when she said camp, and I wondered if she had thought the same. Anneliese turned the pages of the book. Not a schoolbook, I realized, but a book of pictures. I slammed the book shut.
“That did not happen in my town,” I told her. “My town had a prison for soldiers. Prisoners of war. Every war has them, Anneliese.”
Later when she went to bed, I opened the book. The book of black and white photos. Chapter Six was my town. Who in America had heard of my town? But here it was in big, black letters. I read five sentences. Only five, and I could repeat every word. Chapter Six told me the people in the prison were not soldiers.
I had seen the prison once. My friend Anja and I were twelve. It was a rare Saturday when our mothers allowed us to play on washday. We linked arms and ran from our younger sisters who clamored to come along. The day was ours. We ran towards the edge of town down the dirt street away from them all. We marched through the woods and sang the marching song “Deutschland Uber Alles,” pretending we were boy soldiers. Then we became still and listened to the forest. How loud a forest was without our noises.
I was the one to see the curls of barbed wire at the top of a fence. Anja and I hushed each other as we crawled towards the fence. A factory, Anja had said. We had not discovered anything. Then we saw a prisoner who wore a striped jail uniform and a funny, flat hat. We waved to him. He waved back. My mama told me when I came home that night that we had seen a soldier, like the soldiers who fought against my brothers and father. I believed my mama. It was easier to believe the good and not the bad and to remember that the man had waved.
I did not hear Gary drive up in the night, but I heard him in the morning with Anneliese. I would not have made those noises with my husband in my mother’s house. I was still young when I married Albert, both of us sixteen. I had first seen Albert in his Hitler’s Youth uniform and knew he would soon become a soldier. After we married, we lived with my family, so if Albert joined the war I would not be alone. Only a sheet hung between our bed and my sister’s in the loft. Albert and I had crawled to the unfinished wood floor so that no one would hear us rustle the sheets.
But my own daughter moaned as if she were in the movies. So, I vacuumed. It was late for vacuuming, already eleven o’clock. With Walter, the day began at seven in the morning. I first saw him in his flower garden, where he mixed all types of roses: off-white ramblers, scarlet English roses, low-growing polyanthos that clustered along the edge of the garden, and gnarly sweet briar shrub roses whose leaves, if touched with dew or rubbed between the fingers, gave off the scent of apples. In the mornings he searched each rose bush for drooping blooms. One could enjoy caring for a man who paid such careful attention to small things. He even hung his clothes neatly on a hanger before he came under the covers of my bed. He found his way through my skin as if he tenderly loosened a potted plant’s roots to place in the ground. Our limbs stretched luxuriously like roots through pliable earth. We joined like water to soil.
I heard the front door open and shut. Anneliese came in the kitchen. She looked pretty with her hair still wet, slicked back to show her face, fresh from the shower.
“Good morning, Mama.”
How many mothers hear echoes of the child in the adult’s voice? Adult words hide the child, but in the simple phrases, like good morning, I heard my little girl. “Good morning, Anneliese.”
“Gary ran to the store,” Anneliese said.
I threw the newspaper in the trash. I had walked to the 7-11 that morning just to buy Gary a newspaper.
“Why do you do things like that?” We both had adult voices again, and Anneliese tried to sound like the older one.
”Gary didn’t go to the store to buy a newspaper. He went so we could talk. You should have knocked on the door if you were upset about us missing breakfast.”
“You were busy.”
“Please don’t make this difficult.” Her voice was a wisp of sound. I busied myself so not to hear her. I had embarrassed myself by speaking of her and Gary. I poured the coffee, blackened and acrid from three hours on the coffee burner, into two mugs. She waved away the reheated eggs when I tried to scoop them beside the poppy-seed bread.
“Mama, I want to talk to you. Will you sit down?”
“Mama, did you ever love another man besides Papa, when Kasmira and I were young?”
“Anneliese. What a question. Of course not.” Of course not. But I meant to say, who had time for love, that type of love, when the children were young. Everything, even towards Albert, turned to mother-love: an anxious, protective love that Anneliese had brushed aside. I’d never been able to stop that type of love. Even when the girls left home, I would wipe Albert’s cheek with my napkin or tousle his hair like a child. Not until I met Walter did I break from that hovering, eager love.
“I am seeing another man, Mama. That’s why I’m here.” How effortlessly she spoke these words, not even hushing her voice or shifting her gaze.
“But this morning?” I understood even as I asked that Gary would lose her, as I had lost her. How could I explain that I knew this? I knew how Anneliese pulled away from a family. She could pack everything meaningful into the space of a wooden jewelry box and return it. The box had been my mother’s jewelry box. The Bavarian Alps on the lid looked as though they had been carved with a toothpick. Inside this box, Anneliese had packed and returned trinkets from Albert and me: my monogrammed handkerchief, my thin gold ring I had resized to fit her finger, and a photograph of our family.
Anneliese stirred her coffee in the silence. “Gary doesn’t want me to leave so he followed me here.”
“Why would you leave a husband who wants you to stay?”
“I need time to think.”
“You’re not thinking. You’re being foolish.” I cleared my dishes from the table and dumped the uneaten food in the trash.
“Mama, will you sit down? I need to talk to you before Gary comes back.” Anneliese fidgeted with the salt-shaker woman. Her red fingernails covered the holes as she tipped it back and forth. She said she knew that I liked Gary, and she had expected me to be difficult. And then she asked me to let her stay.
The light from Walter’s bedroom window illuminated a square of the yard between our houses. Only a small patch of dark separated us. I wrapped my summer blue robe around me and put on slippers with the rubber soles. I would go to him. The cool of the night already hovered in the grass to catch the late night dew. Walter did not seem surprised when I opened his bedroom door, though I had never visited his room.
“You didn’t turn on your light,” he said. “I thought you might come.”
His navy pajamas reminded me of our age. The tuft of white hair, that his work shirts covered, now puffed at the v of his nightshirt. We looked baggy in our nightclothes, closer to the feel of our skin, than day clothes that forced us into younger proportions. He found pillows at the top of his closet and offered them to me. I propped myself in the bed beside him.
“She wants to move in with me for a time.”
“Until she decides between her husband and her boyfriend.”
“What did you say?”
I saw myself then, sitting across from Anneliese at the kitchen table, my lips pressed together to keep from saying more. My loud voice had lingered in our silence. I had yelled when I told her to think of someone other than herself. A hot irritation had rattled my stomach. I had yelled at Anneliese who could give back everything in a jewelry box.
“I told her I would think about it.”
I smoothed the flowered cotton sheets that I had bought for him. I had wondered if he would put them on his bed. Walter had always come to me. I did not want this to change.
“Will you visit me?” I asked. “You can come over just as I did tonight, and she sleeps much later than you. She would never know you were there.”
I traced the blue ribbon that connected the rosebuds on the sheets. I had never asked Walter for anything.
He took my hand in his. Apart, our hands could be described as all older hands always are, speckled with age spots or gnarled from arthritis, but together the hardened joints of our fingers looked strong, sturdy, and somehow younger. Walter placed his other hand over mine and rubbed my fingers.
We sat in silence. Not the quiet ease that surrounded us when we watered the rose bushes in the morning or peeled potatoes for dinner. Just silence.
How much of love is instinct? I smoothed the covers when I crawled out of the bed. I slowly put on each slipper and buttoned my robe. Walter said nothing.
“Daughters need their mothers at times like this,” I said.
Walter kissed me. “I will not sneak around to see you.”
It was easier to concentrate on the bad and not the good in Anneliese, for I was no longer a child who saw only the good. Anneliese was mine, and I noticed what I believed I could change. When Anneliese spoke to Gary or the other man on the phone, she leaned back in the kitchen chair against the kitchen counter, her dirty slippers propped on the kitchen table. She twirled the phone cord around her finger just as she had when she was a teenager, and I tapped her feet as I had then. “No shoes on the table,” I whispered. Her scowl was the same.
I nagged her about little things because I could not tell her what had really changed. I could not point to my empty welcome mat and explain not seeing a bag of green beans. I would not admit that each night, I woke shivering on the side of the bed where Walter normally slept. So, I chided Anneliese for leaving an ice cream dish on her nightstand.
At night we watched the eleven o’clock news together. We sat side by side on Anneliese’s bed because she refused to watch the news in black and white. I had not seen the need for the color television that she bought me, so I put it in the room where Anneliese stayed. As with every gift from her, it was a reprimand. I knew when I received her gifts what she wanted me to replace in my house.
As we watched the news, the lavender scent of my face cream mingled with the peach smell of hers. We passed hand cream between us and massaged the silky lotion onto our hands. I wondered if she noticed that she held her hands in her lap as I did, with her left thumb over her right. Our shoulders touched. We watched the weather report for the next day. It would rain, and Walter would stay inside another day. It had rained for two days.
The next morning I found a soggy bag of green beans on my welcome mat. I had the beans snapped and boiling by the time Anneliese came to the kitchen for breakfast. Again, she had not combed her hair, and she had on the same gray sweat pants and white T-shirt as the day before. I peeled potatoes in the kitchen sink. I had learned in our week together she did not like to speak when she first got out of bed.
Anneliese stared into the cupboard. She reached behind the stacks of dishes and pulled out a creamware plate. The cream looked almost yellow next to the large white nicks in the rim.
“I can’t believe this,” she said.
I rummaged in another cupboard beside the stove, pretending to look for a pot to boil the potatoes. She picked up a matching bowl from the dish drainer.
“You’re still using them.” She held it in front of her like a lawyer presenting evidence on “Perry Mason.”
I ducked my head deeper in the cupboard and grunted as if I couldn’t hear her.
“The dishes. You set the ones I gave you in front of the ones you really use.” She tapped me on the shoulder. “How old is this dish?”
I crawled out from the cupboard with the pot that had been in front all along. “Five years. Maybe ten. At the most, forty.”
Forty years was the truth. My first American purchase at Woolworth’s. A good purchase worth the three dollars for the entire set. What dishes lasted that long now?
“It’s not five years. I remember eating on these dishes when I was a girl. What memory can be so wonderful you’d keep these dishes?”
I took the dish from her so she would not drop it as she waved her hand. “No memory. They’re just good dishes. There’s no reason to throw them out.”
“Mama, they’re chipped. They look used. You have better dishes you’re not using.”
“Did the bowl hold my cereal this morning? Yes. So I keep the bowl. Now if the bowl cracked, I would throw it away. I am not like you. I do not throw away things because they are too familiar.”
Anneliese swiped her hand across my table, knocking the cereal bowl to the floor. Its wobbling grew louder as the bowl slowly spun to a stop. I picked it up and examined it. Not one crack. I put the bowl in the sink to wash it.
“Sorry.” She hung her head. “I’m not myself lately.”
“Sorry?” I asked and touched her chin and showed her the bowl. “These dishes are better than I thought.”
For dinner that night, I served cheese pierogies and potato pierogies sautéed in onions and butter, Anneliese’s favorite. She slid them around her plate leaving a yellow butter trail behind them.
“Aren’t you hungry?”
“You used real butter, didn’t you? I’ve gained almost five pounds since I’ve been here.”
She had fought with the other man on the phone earlier in the afternoon. Then she had pretended with me that she had not fought with him. After she hung up the phone, I had said his name for the first time. “Robby sounds like a young name.”
“Deliciously younger, Mama. He makes me feel alive again. Can you understand that?” she had asked.
“No.” I had only said no. But I wanted to tell her much more. How delicious, to use her phrase, it was to find a man that made me love my age. He had learned touch from his rose bushes. How to wrap his fingers around the stem and not prick them on thorns, how to turn each leaf without breaking it, how to rest his nose in the petals and inhale their scent. His touch reminded me that my skin was still connected to a place inside my body.
I had watched Walter from my window that afternoon as I prepared the pierogies for dinner. He dropped weeds into a mud-streaked yellow bucket beside him. Weeding time was our talking time. I always took him iced tea or lemonade. I missed that time of the day. I knew as I watched him weed his garden that I had to tell Anneliese to leave.
As Anneliese swirled her pierogies in the butter, the kitchen light made her look old, even older than the first night of her visit. She had not worn makeup for days.
“You would not have to eat pierogies if you lived with Gary.”
She speared a pierogie with her fork and shoved it into her mouth. When she finished chewing, she said, “There, I ate the pierogie. I know you worked hard to make them. Thank you.” She spoke in rote as if she said a childhood prayer that had lost its meaning. Albert had taught them to thank me at the end of every meal. Nothing had changed in the way Anneliese talked to me. She scowled. Something in me sprouted.
“Anneliese, it is time for you to go home.”
That night I turned on my bedroom light and left up the window shade. Walter’s shade glowed orange and blocked the light from spreading like a doorway between our lawns. I pretended to read a book, but glanced up every few minutes towards his window. When he turned off the light, I turned off mine. Then I saw him. The streetlight exposed his silhouette in the window. He had raised his window shade.
The next morning, I would visit Walter during weeding time with two glasses of iced tea. In my pocket, I would have the ceramic farmer couple salt and pepper shakers. I would tell him that Anneliese would leave that day after she met him. Then I would prop the salt and pepper shaker in dirt shaded by the untamed flower garden and tell him about our wedding. “We will marry in August in your backyard, near the flower garden. We won’t play dress-up. We’ll marry just as we are. You will wear your blue striped, button-down gardening shirt, and I will wear my navy gardening slacks and my blue cotton top.” And I would tell him I wanted him to make me a bouquet of roses.