On a Friday afternoon the neighborhood children gathered at a park not far from my front door. I live in Germany. The children speak German. They also yell, scream, and shriek with delight in German. These are conversations for which I need no interpreter. Joy and laughter are international as are cries from falls and bellows of frustration.
I wasn’t adept enough at German to ask my neighbor if she was feeling okay. She’d parked her car in her driveway, which is very close to my driveway. Twenty minutes later she was still sitting there. She hadn’t undone her seatbelt. The engine was turned off, but the key was still in the ignition.
Throughout my childhood, I observed as the women in my family went to others they thought needed something. For the longest time I thought they knew everyone in the world. I was a young teenager living in Wichita, Kansas, when my mother took me downtown to run errands and go window-shopping. We saw a middle-aged lady sitting on a bench at a bus stop. My impression of her was very different from my mother’s. I saw a middle-aged lady waiting for the bus. Mom saw distress. She handed me her purse without looking at me, as if I were a hat rack. The woman on the bench was just waiting there and along comes a lady with intrusive questions and too eager to touch someone’s arm.
I took up with the window of a bookstore while Mom imposed herself upon the woman. Suddenly mom snatched her purse off my arm and my own purse fell to the ground without her notice; then I was an embarrassed hat rack. Mom pulled pencil, paper, and a city map from a purse that wasn’t big enough to hold all that plus the twenty or so items I’d seen her retrieve and replace earlier in the day. “She was lost,” Mom answered the question I hadn’t asked as she led me back to our path of errands. “How was she lost?” I asked. “She was sitting right there.”
The woman had arrived in town the day before to visit her only living relative, a brother. He was in the hospital and had died the night before. She spent the rest of the night in a hotel across the street from the hospital and caught the first city bus she saw in hopes of getting to the Greyhound station to get back home. The bus driver told her he’d get her downtown near the station. Once there, he pointed her north. She got off the bus and started walking. She never found the station, but she had found a bench. An hour later my mother and her teenaged hat rack happened by.
I don’t refer to myself as a hat rack for lack of self-esteem, but rather because on that day at that bench I had observed in that woman about as much as a hat rack would – and I clearly missed everything my mother saw. Hers was not a long or complicated conversation with the woman. Mom knew the next bus wouldn’t be along for another hour. This was something I didn’t know and, even if I had known, I wouldn’t have cared or put two and two together. Why then, my mother wanted to know, would someone sit there on that bench instead of getting a cup of coffee in the diner next to the bookstore? So she asked.
The woman and her brother weren’t close. She’d gone to him out of familial obligation, and now she just wanted to get back home. Mom saw urgency in the woman who was fidgeting for a bus my mother knew wasn’t coming anytime soon. Mom drew her a map to the Greyhound station several blocks away – in the opposite direction the bus driver had said. She offered to walk with her, but the woman declined with a generous thank you on a face whose expression had gone from an anxious, “How the hell do I get out of here?” to an anxious, “Finally, the way out of here!”
My neighbor sat in her car without an anxious expression; it was uncomfortably stoic. I knocked on her passenger side window. She reached over, opened the door, and resumed her posture behind the wheel. Her expression didn’t change. I got in. “Wie geht’s?” (“How are you?”) I asked. “Gut,” (“Good”) she said. We both knew she had answered politely rather than realistically. We also knew our respective knowledge of each other’s languages was minimal, so we sat quietly for a few minutes in a silence that wasn’t as awkward as I would have thought. Then she started talking. I understood so few words I could barely get an idea of the details, but just like the children in the park, her tone gave up a language I knew too well.
She has two small children and a husband who works a lot more than the average German. Whether it’s his commute, the work itself, or some other activity, I don’t know, but she was alone with the kids most of the time. Her parents had no sooner driven away after a week-long visit than his parents showed up at the airport. She was exhausted from two straight weeks of parental and parental-in-law visitation.
I had watched as she and her mother moved her entire flowerbed to the other side of the yard. The next week she and her mother-in-law moved it back; because that’s where she wanted it and her mother-in-law was helping? I doubt it. As much work as it was to move it, regardless of her preference, I can’t imagine she cared enough or had the energy to care where it went.
She continued talking and from this I gathered she’d just returned from taking her in-laws back to the airport. Here in her driveway, she took ahold of her steering wheel as if driving to an imaginary destination. She hit a roadblock and began to cry.
As a teenager I was loath to reach out to touch someone I didn’t know well. Now, I was not hesitant to reach out to my neighbor, though. Hers was a pain I’ve felt myself, and I’ve held that pain in my arms as my children grew into and through the frustrations of young adult life.
Given our age difference, I’m not sure my neighbor wasn’t expecting me to judge and admonish away her last ounce of self-respect, but how could I? She’d just passed a marathon inspection. She was out of energy and was to be commended for at least making it to her driveway.