Cherry on top
One year, the wind dropped a seedling on top of my grandparent’s old farmhouse, where it lodged itself between two thick roof tiles. It quickly grew into a two and a half foot cherry tree that never carried any fruit. In the summer, I sat on the red bench in the cobbled courtyard and watched the little tree sway in the warm breeze.
When temperatures rose, Grandma Ellie made up for us the unused bedroom on the last floor of the house, which had remained gloriously unchanged since the 1950s. The Schlafzimmer, in particular, was a feast for my childhood eyes. There were small ornamental animal sculptures, from donkeys to owls, gathering dust on every surface. A three-dimensional relief of a pair of praying hands hung next to the old art deco dresser. A pearl necklace, fake, had been slung over the gold rim mirror on top of the desk by the window. A collage of cut out faces showing distant aunts and uncles appeared as a family portrait above the bed. Opposite, a large print of a religious scene, an angel guiding two children across a wild creek, stared at us as we slipped into our pyjamas.
Ellie habitually brought us hot cocoa and warmed the bed by switching on the electric blanket. “Remember, we must switch it off before we fall asleep or else the mattress will catch on fire and the entire house burns down with us.” She ignored the fact that the entire house and adjoining barn was made of wood, the latter filled with dry, yellow straw throughout most of the year.
Ellie administered large doses of prayers and cuddles, and the three of us went to sleep on top of the two giant mattresses that pressed into the old wooden frame. We shared three separate duvets and three separate pillows, each one larger than our bodies combined. When I woke up in the morning, my limbs had slipped into the gap between the mattresses, and my grandparents had already disappeared from the room.
As I walked into the kitchen for breakfast, Ellie was already preparing lunch. Many of her intricate dishes took hours to prepare. I helped myself to a bowl of cereal and milk, and watched her goulash bubble away on the stove. The old ceramic kitchen clock behind me came up to 8 a.m.
Grandpa Pieder couldn’t cook, and made himself busy elsewhere in the house. This also meant that whenever Ellie had a hospital appointment or needed new glasses, I was in charge of reheating leftovers or making soup. My mediocre cooking skills and good grades put me in Pieder’s good book. He often told me that I was the only good egg in the family, which provided me with well-needed confidence boosts all throughout my childhood.
Pieder was loving but blunt. He never wasted anyone’s time, but also had a complete disregard for anyone’s feelings. He simply took no prisoners. When someone called the green, wall-mounted phone to congratulate him on his birthday, he said thank you and without waiting for a response immediately hung up again. His grouchiness was part choice, part life experience forced upon him. Following military service during WWII, Pieder lived with PTSD and a simmering, lifelong depression that was never acknowledged or recognised by anyone in the family.
One late Saturday morning, cousin Georg drove up to the old farmhouse, his wife Sabina clutching onto little Tabea and Tamara in the passenger seat. Not having visited them for several months, they wanted to surprise us. Unfortunately for them, they arrived just as Ellie was getting ready to serve lunch, always at 12 o’clock sharp.
Pieder looked at the little family and then angrily turned to me, as if I had invited them. “What the hell are they doing here, showing up unannounced right before lunch?” As Sabina covered the little girls’ ears and ushered them through to the kitchen, Georg and I exchanged some friendly words, before the family retreated back into their car and drove away. Nobody saw them again for several years.
Rage didn’t run in the family. Pieder’s younger brother Walt was upbeat and jolly, which was helped by the copious amounts of alcohol he consumed. His outings made the family well-known all over the village. Four times his brother’s size, Walt only moved by car, which was doubly convenient because it saved him the walk and reduced his travel time Zum Roten Bären, the local pub.
Once so inebriated, he threw up outside the pub and lost in the sewer his car keys and his false teeth. Both items had fallen through the iron gutters in the street never to be seen again.
Another morning, someone found Walt asleep behind the wheel of his white station wagon, which he had rocketed into our neighbour’s front yard on his way home. He dragged with him the Meier’s wooden fence, protecting a rigorously planned bed of primroses and bellflowers. Walt took the lives of four garden gnomes but thankfully remained unhurt himself.
The only thing Pieder ever drove was his Allgaier tractor. Depending on the season, he brought back home apples from the orchard or wood from the forest, but this was the farthest he ever travelled after his early retirement. He associated travelling abroad with being forced to leave the country and never understood why his grandson would choose to live anywhere but next door.
Pieder told us his gruesome wartime stories over coffee and cake, including being served cat during his stay in France. We were told never to complain about being hungry, because nobody had experienced the hunger he felt during the war years.
He taught us the remaining French phrases and words which he remembered from back when. “Voulez-vous faire une promenade avec moi, Mademoiselle?” Pieder explained to us that he learned French from his time in Marseille, where he swooned over three local prostitutes, a blonde, brunette and redhead, at which point Ellie, having the patience of a saint, usually left the room. Neither one of them had it easy.
It was many years later when my younger sister rang with the news that Pieder had passed away. I hung up the phone, walked into the bathroom at the other end of my boyfriend’s minuscule studio, and threw up multiple times. On the way back to my apartment, I threw up once more on the escalator at Maelbeek. I ran out of the Metro station and home as fast as I could. I was destroyed.
My family was furious when I showed up to Pieder’s funeral not dressed in black, but wearing a red tartan bomber jacket. I defended myself by saying that 1) the jacket was very à la mode and 2) Pieder wouldn’t have given two fucks about it. Neither comment made me a very popular man on the day.
Pieder embodied so many things which I always treasured, including his outrageously direct and honest nature and his blunt opinions. Like the little cherry tree that never blossomed, there was something persistent, stubborn and subversive in Pieder that never went away. No matter which way the wind blew, he determinedly followed his own path and never changed.