(Written in Spring of 2014, just FYI)
I never thought that buying new furniture would result in a relationship that would leave an indelible mark on my life. All I was trying to do was find some antiques for my bedroom. I was changing its theme- less “African Queen,” more “1930’s glamour.” I did some searching on the much-maligned Craigslist, and actually was successful in finding some quality furniture without being attacked or sold into slavery. My final conquest would be to find a desk to sit under my window. My mom and I went to the Orange Circle to hunt for the perfect waterfall style desk to complete the ensemble.
The Orange Circle is the downtown of the city of Orange, California, and is exactly what you would picture when asked to visualize a small town out of a storybook. There is a large circle in the middle of the downtown, which houses a vintage fountain surrounded by park benches and your typical flora and fauna. During Christmas, the Circle is a veritable cornucopia of religious symbols; Santa waves merrily as he stands by the giant menorah. A Christmas tree is erected, and the whole town is awash in garlands and tinsel. It’s quite a sight – something like from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” All that is missing is Jimmy Stewart running gaily down the street and Mr. Potter rolling by with a scowl on his face.
The Circle breaks out into spokes, and each spoke is a small road accommodating a plethora of little shops and restaurants. One street has a diner named Watson’s, and the Tom Hanks movie
“That Thing You Do” was filmed there. Now, I never have seen that movie, but I am reminded of that fun fact every time I eat there, for there is a giant, framed poster of “That Thing You Do” hanging prominently for all to see. There are antique stores still, but I fear the inevitable infiltration of hipster stores; parasitic entities that choke the life out of the charm and novelty of the Circle.
It is against this backdrop where our story begins.
My mom and I ambled into a store one autumn afternoon, called The Antique Depot. The store is made up of little booths, rented by antique dealers, to sell their wares. I made my way up one aisle, and turned the corner; a corner in the store, as well as in my life. Perched in a chair, white hair pulled tightly into a bun with wisps of hair forming a halo around her head, sat an old woman. She seemed to be the guardian of the bathroom, of which she sat in front. Her appearance was reminiscent of my grandma Everson, so I took to her immediately. And, lo and behold, a perfect waterfall antique vanity was beside her.
“You should lose the belt” I heard a voice say, as I was examining the vanity. I turned around, and saw the old woman eyeing me with disapproval. “Get rid of the belt” she repeated. I was a little taken back – was she talking to me? Who was she to tell me what to wear! I fingered my belt nervously, looking back at the woman. “It makes you look fat” she went on, shaking her head.
Then and there, our friendship was born.
I appreciate honesty, which is a little hypocritical for me to value because I always trip all over myself trying to be polite. I do not enjoy confrontation (unless it’s warranted and it is regarding something I feel passionate about – I AM a lawyer, after all!) and I never want to hurt someone’s feelings. But still, I appreciate when someone can break through the veil of artificial civility that our culture imposes, and simply speaks the truth. I prefer when people speak the truth in love, but I take what I can get.
“Fat?” I repeated, aghast. The very reason I wore this belt was to hide my stomach. I always read that a big belt over a dress is flattering on a figure that is more Rubenesque than Twiggy- esqe. The old woman motioned for me to come closer to her little post. I walked forward and, with shaky hands, she attempted to loosen my belt. I lent a hand, and we were able to take the offending belt off. “Much better” the woman declared.
We turned our attention to the vanity. An older woman with wispy gray hair skittered up to us, with the presence of a meek little mouse. “This is Alexandra” *(name has been changed) my caretaker,” said my new fashion consultant, gesturing toward the mouse woman, and then began to cough. Alexandra whipped out a cloth and oil, and began to feverishly polish the vanity. “I’m Bethany” I offered, stuffing the now-undesired belt into my oversize purse. “I’m
Gerda” the woman said, after her coughing fit. She adjusted the oxygen tubes that fed into her nostrils, and then leaned in to shake my hand. I noticed a green sign with thick while lettering “GERDA’S ANTIQUES” and a framed newspaper article with her picture on it. “I used to own my own antique shop,” Gerda explained, her big blue eyes lighting up. “But I went out of business” she continued sadly, those eyes darkening.
I knew I was going to buy that vanity, no matter how much it cost.
My mom and I exchanged knowing glances, and I nodded. “I’ll buy the desk” I said. “Vanity” Gerda corrected me, which would be a common occurrence in our friendship. Alexandra clasped her hands together in excitement. “Oh good!” She leaned over to Gerda and said, “Did you hear that, Gerda? They’re going to buy it!” Gerda looked at me with a wide smile, tears welling up in her eyes. My mom said,” Go over with Gerda and I will take a picture of you.” I followed her instructions, and smiled for the camera. Little did I know that picture would hang proudly in Gerda’s booth, and would be by her side when she passed away.
I thought I was just getting a vanity. Instead, I got a friend.
“Turn it up!” Gerda demanded, gesturing toward my radio. I obediently leaned over and flicked the volume dial, filling my car with Burt Bacharach. “Raindrops keep fallin’ on my head,” Gerda sang along. I joined in. “But that doesn’t mean my eyes will soon be turning red!” We belted, as we drove merrily down the 55 Freeway. “God put you in my life” Gerda said, looking at me. “I think so, too” I agreed. “No, I KNOW so.” Gerda insisted, repeating an exchange that would take place countless times over the course of our friendship. And, as usual, she was right. After leaving with my vanity from the antique store, a strange feeling came over me, a sensation I can only describe as a deep, soul penetrating awareness that this Gerda character would become a fixture in my life.
We fell into a routine, Gerda and I. I would call her on the way home from work and always be treated to lectures and advice. “Wear nylons” she would say. “Wear skirts past your knees” “Be humble” “Work hard.” I would laugh and say “Ok” and mostly follow her advice (except the one about nylons-this isn’t the 1950’s!) She was the first person that I called when I found out, on that fateful November evening, that I failed my first attempt at the bar exam by the narrowest of margins. “Oh shit” she cried, when I told her. Her reaction was the most honest of all the consolations I received. It was also my favorite.
Gerda’s little booth, where I first stumbled upon her and my vanity, became like my second home. Gerda would sit like a queen on her chair next to the restroom, where she had the optimal vantage point of her wares. With a shaky hand, she would point a finger at various items and ask me to rearrange them. I knew that I didn’t please her keen German sense of order and aesthetics when I would look at her for approval, and she would shake head slightly. Or sometimes she heaved a great sigh and say, “What am I going to do with you?” When I was successful, she would clap her hands together and say, “Now you’re cooking with gas, honey!”
Various people would walk past her booth, but not many stopped to look at her items. She was located on a corner, and people would walk briskly past the booth, shoot a quick glance, and move on. Gerda would talk to the people that walked by, alternating between being a sweet old lady and a snarky commentator. “Look at her!” Gerda would whisper to me, clucking her tongue disapprovingly. I would always drag a chair from the backroom next to Gerda’s seat, praying that someone would buy something. “She looks like a prostitute” Gerda would continue. The offending girl would smile at Gerda as she walked by, thinking “What a poor little old lady on oxygen” never knowing that Gerda was judging her so harshly.
When a heavy man would stroll by, Gerda would shout, “You got the dunlap disease.” The man would invariably ask, “What is ‘dunlap’ disease?” and Gerda would answer, “Your belly done lap over your belt” and cackle. The man would either look bemused or irritated. I would awkwardly sit there next to Gerda, and smile apologetically. I tried to convey “old ladies-what can you do?” with my expression, knowing that Gerda was probably like this all of her life. If a handsome man came by, on the other hand, Gerda would reach out with both hands and cry, “There’s my new husband!” She still had an eye for the gentlemen.
Sometimes Gerda would share about her difficult childhood in Germany. Her mom would sleep with “anyone in a uniform” as Gerda would say dryly; consequentially, Gerda never found out who her father was. She suspected he was in the military, given her mother’s propensities. They lived in a barn-like structure, on the second floor, and Gerda said when her mother was “done” with a man, she would send him up to Gerda. I never pressed Gerda for more details, but the pain on her face while recalling this time in her history was apparent.
Gerda married several times, a fact she would tell me in hushed tones, as if she was ashamed. Gerda acknowledged that she did a “lot of different things” in Germany to survive in order to have money to eat. I could gather what some of those things were, but I didn’t judge her. Times were tough and, to me, it just made her story even more fascinating.
She met her first husband, who was an American soldier stationed in Germany. It took an act of Congress, signed by President Eisenhower, to get Gerda over to the US, as she was living in Eastern Germany. I have newspaper clips from the 1950’s from all over the world detailing this extraordinary event of a young, poor German woman who was able to marry her American sweetheart and move to the United States to start a new life for herself.
Gerda constantly berated herself for not being kinder and a better wife to her first husband, a regret that she clutched to heart until her dying day. I’m not sure how long she was married to husband #1, but I know that she adopted two children. She never gave birth to any children-she never was opposed to having children and never used any kind of protection; she just never became pregnant in all of her years. I’m sorry that is the case – I would love to see Gerda’s spunk and vivaciousness live on through a child. I guess I have to fill that role.
It was an extraordinarily hot summer – every day felt like it couldn’t possibly get any hotter. But it did. The heat was oppressive at its best, and vicious at its worst. Old people were dropping like flies – newscasters would put on their “frowny face” to report the latest fatality due to Mother Nature’s wrath. It sure felt like, to quote Al Gore, that the planet “ha[d] a fever.” It was terrible. These conditions did not suit Gerda either. Her little apartment lacked central air conditioning- she just had a pitiful little white unit in the corner of her living room that would wheeze out a puff or two of lukewarm air, and then would quit.
When I would take Gerda home, I would pull up as close as I could to her front door. These apartments were really just a couple of glorified studios, with three parking spots. The tiny apartments were nestled in a heavily commercial area, with the noises and trash which commonly accompany these locales. Gerda was such an elegant woman; a snob, really, that I wished more than anything that I could get her into a nicer home… perhaps a senior apartment complex? I researched but I could not find anywhere that she could afford. She couldn’t even afford the little place she was living in currently – I supplemented her rent with a monthly check to cover the part that was out of her budget. Her rent kept rising; conversely, the conditions just got worse as the summer wore on. And on, and on.
I would help Gerda out of the car and into the house, assisting her as she huffed and puffed her way to her chair. Her oxygen tank would be running low by now, so it would be up to me to replace the tank. I never did figure out how to seamlessly swap out one tank for another, though. It would drive Gerda crazy. It was pure misery to try to replace the tank with another heavy, silver and green cylinder and turn the handle so it would expel oxygen. Many a time I would turn the handle the wrong way, and oxygen would shoot into the room. The piecing noise it made was deafening. Gerda would cover her ears with her talon-like hands, and sweat would pour down my forehead. After this cacophony of incompetence on my part, I would go to the refrigerator and take out a glass of previously poured orange juice. I would bring it to Gerda, the cool glass in my hand, and get her settled in. My job was to open the windows, turn on the ceiling fans, and then I would go. I don’t know how many times I did this – we just settled into a routine.
Driving away in my car, I would morbidly wonder if this was the last day I would see Gerda. Then one day, it was.
I was in my office one February morning, when I looked at my cell phone’s incoming call. I did not recognize the number, but I answered it anyway. It was one of Gerda’s many friends. She told me that Gerda was in the hospital and that it wasn’t looking good. The phone was passed to Gerda, who told me in blunt terms that she felt like crap and that the doctor was afraid that she had lung cancer. Now, my only reference (thank God) that I have to lung cancer is everybody’s buddy, Walter White from Breaking Bad. I remembered he seemed to cough a lot on that show. Gerda coughed all the time, too. She told me that it was from her COPD and emphysema, but now it could be something even worse.
She sounded scared on the phone, a side of Gerda I had never seen. Suddenly, this bawdy broad seemed little and old. I assured her that I would be at the hospital as soon as I could come. However, I wasn’t able to visit her for a couple of days because of work obligations, and during that time it was determined that she did NOT have lung cancer, but instead a collapsed lung and a giant mucus plug in her lungs.
I have never sat by someone’s bedside while they were dying. Gerda had a giant mask on that would force air in and out of her lungs. She couldn’t speak – it just made a terrible racket. It was the only time Gerda would keep her mouth shut! She did communicate though, and in true Gerda fashion, some of the communication was done via her middle finger! (As a joke though) (I think!) Gerda’s bright blue peepers, as I called them, were bright and lively as ever. She would signal to me through blinks, nods, eyebrow wiggles, and her hands about what she wanted to say. She was still quite opinionated, even from her deathbed. I sat for hours, holding her hand and watching her sleep. When she would wake up, I would tell her about my day and my then boyfriend (now fiancé) who also came and sat with Gerda as well.
After a few days, it became apparent to me that Gerda was not going to make it. I brought Gerda one of her favorite photographs (one of herself, naturally, at her 40th birthday party) and the photograph my mom took of us back the first day that we crossed paths. I propped up these photos next to her, where she could see them. I told her that she was loved and that she would never be forgotten. I told her she would live on in the stories I would tell about her to my kids. She smiled, I could see it under that awful mask, and looked content. Those eyes of hers were getting a bit cloudy as I left the hospital that Monday evening.
The phone rang two days later, and before I picked it up, I knew. She was gone.
I went to the hospital that evening, ready to pick up the remaining items from Gerda’s nightstand. The photographs that I brought now sat beside an empty bed. A nurse shuffled by and gave me a thick, plastic bag. The bag felt stale and sterile as I shoved in cards, flowers, and other mementos that Gerda’s many friends had dropped off. A person’s life, gone, with only an empty bed and some little presents to show for it. I mechanically picked everything up and exited her room, feeling like I was on autopilot. I just had to get to my car, I thought, and then I could cry.
I gave a little wave to the nurses at their station as I walked to the elevator. One nurse turned to the other and told her that I was a friend of the woman who just had “expired.” Expired? That must have been a medical term, but it felt so cold and cruel. Gerda didn’t expire. She wasn’t a gallon of milk. She was a beautiful, maddeningly complicated woman who just was untamed. No, she didn’t expire, quite the opposite of that, really. She became a butterfly, no longer shackled to earth with her oxygen tubes and machines. She was free.
I walked by her store today. With a deep breath and my mom’s help, I went inside. I was quite proud of my composure, until I rounded that corner- the corner where I first saw her sitting there next to the vanity. Tears sprung to my eyes and pain swelled inside of me. So much has happened in my life since she left me, over a year ago. I’m engaged to be married this November and just purchased my first home. I know Gerda would cluck her tongue disapprovingly about me having a wedding (“A waste of money” she often warned me.) I also know that she would have had a wonderful time.
I carry with me memories of Gerda. She may be gone, but she sure is not forgotten. I will always remember her, and try to follow her (many) words of advice.
Except the advice about always wearing nylons.