Ruthild always left vases of flowers on the dining room table. The kitchen often wafted with a bouquet of scents from the variety of confections she baked. In the mornings, opera or classical music floated from a small stereo on a bench in the dining room.
Then, Ruthild sat with her coffee, cheese, bread and homemade jam spread out on the table and read the newspaper. During the two months I I rented a room from her in Berlin on a fellowship, my breakfast frequently coincided with hers. We sat and chatted, often about trivialities like the weather, politics or our weekends.
One particular morning, the paper lay folded neatly to her side when I pulled up my chair with my granola and tea. She sat with her chin in her hands, gazing out the fifth-story window at the grey that masked Berlin from the sun.
We started with our usual conversation: It’s supposed to warm up later in the week, she said. I had a great time in Potsdam on Saturday, I offered. She rode bikes with her boyfriend along the river in the small town of Walldorf, where she often spends the weekends, she mentioned.
At the time, Ruthild was a retired 50-year-old who grew up in eastern Germany. In her retirement, she was a part of a project to educate people about various religions. She moved to Berlin when it was a divided city, and watched in disbelief as the pieces of the wall came down one day at a time. I would later glean a deeper understanding of her experience of that era, but only after this morning set the stage for a closer relationship.
When I first arrived, she was on vacation and had left a list of rules likely puzzled together with a dictionary. Those who grew up in the east learned Russian instead of English like those in the west. Maybe as a result of her limited English vocabulary, the rules were strict in tone: Take off your shoes when in the flat; quiet after 10 p.m.; close the window and lock to door when leaving the flat. The quiet, gentle manner about her when we finally met were hard to reconcile with the author of those rules. She pronounced her words clearly and slowly, as if paced by a metronome, and almost sang my name before she began a conversation with me.
This particular morning, I ventured beyond previous boarders of our regular morning conversation. “Do you own a house in Walgart?” I asked. Yes, she has a house in this small town on the coast, she said, her eyes brightening. It was more like a hut, with one room with only a bed, toilet and kitchen. It is enough, she said.
“I’ll show you,” she said, pushing back her chair and padding up the stairs like a child on Christmas morning. She returned with a small photo album, filled with pictures of the home. They show a small rectangle house, trimmed with grass and set with a view of the sea.
Ruthild’s pride was a garden that grew wildly like unbrushed hair. Daisies and irises were its centerpiece, near a small brush labyrinth. Other photos boasted apple and plum trees heavy with fruit. A small table and two chairs sat in the backyard waiting for tea.
Ruthild and her boyfriend, Bernd, bought the house about five or six years prior, she told me. She was looking for a getaway and saw an ad in a paper after a fruitless search through other means. The pruned gardens stacked next to each other like playing cards on the street leading to the house almost turned her away when she went to see it. Then she arrived at the one for sale, on the end, with a beautiful view and an untamed garden instead of the rigid rows of her neighbors.
Yes, the “rules of the house” were an unfair introduction to Ruthild.