Neighbourly matters

Yesterday at the hair-dressers I ran into Frau Brecht, an elderly neighbour at my previous apartment. I hadn’t seen her since I moved out two years ago. Now she stood a few paces away, hanging her coat on the stand nearby, but showed no signs of recognition. It was unlikely she hadn’t seen me, and I wondered if this was a practical response to avoid being ignored. We often pass the elderly by without noticing them – was this instinct not to seek attention their defense mechanism?

When I greeted her, she smiled and came forward to sit next to me. I asked how she was doing. Quite okay, she replied, given that I am not getting any younger. Her eyes looked smaller, but there were no other signs of change: the same small frame, drooping shoulders, stubby feet. What about Herr Brecht, how is he? I asked. He’s getting by, she replied. He has problems with his hips, probably due to his long years as a metal worker, but he’s already eighty so that is not surprising.

I recalled that Herr Brecht was our resident handyman. His help was often sought to open the door to Frau Jeager’s apartment. Frau Jeager, the old lady who lived opposite me on the ground floor, would forget her keys inside and then seek the Brechts’s help to get her back indoors. On one occasion, when the Brechts were not available, I invited Frau Jeager to wait in my living room until help arrived. When he came, Herr Brecht made familiar grumbling noises about what a careless old woman Frau Jeager was turning into, which was less a complaint than his way of poking fun. He went up to his apartment and returned with a thin metal plate the size of a CD, an instrument he slid along the narrow line between frame and door and, as if by magic, wedged the door open. Frau Jeager held both my hands to thank me, then walked straight back into her apartment without another word or even a glance at Herr Brecht. He turned to me, eyebrows raised, and said: you’ll remember your keys when you leave home, won’t you? Then he walked up the stairs to his first floor apartment.

I asked Frau Brecht about Frau Jeager. I knew that not long after I left she’d been moved to an institution for senior citizens; her memory was failing fast, and she was unable to live by herself. She’s still at the institution, Frau Brecht answered. Dementia has made her condition worse; I haven’t seen her in a while. My daughter bought that apartment after Frau Jeager left, and now we have some tenants living there. We did consider moving to that ground floor place – as we get older we can’t climb even one floor easily, you know – but my husband did not want it. There are some advantages to the first floor: we can keep the windows open when we want to (can you imagine doing that from the ground floor?), and the view of the street is better. So we will continue in the first floor until we can. My daughter, as you know, lives only a few streets away, so it isn’t so bad.

It was my turn for the haircut so I wished her well and seated myself in front of the mirror. Herr.Rapp, the saloon owner, looked at me through the mirror with a silly smile, and asked if we were neighbours. She was my neigbhour, I replied, until I moved out a couple of years ago. Ah, he said, turning to Frau Brecht, so you were neighbours until you drove him away! Then, laughing at his own joke, he picked up the scissors.

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