(from my memoir ‘to Paris for lunch’)
Oma Erna, my Father’s Mother, was furious!
‘Get out of my kitchen and put some clothes on!’
Fritz, my Opa, had for the fifth time that morning interfered with the way she used the hot water: he told her she had put the cooker on too high for boiling potatoes, that the old washing up water had not been re-used for flushing the toilet, and that some of the potato peel had ended up in the wrong waste bucket, not the one for the garden compost.
‘Look how you are wasting money! My mother had nothing in Prussia and was able to boil potatoes without lighting the fire!’
‘Without lighting the fire!?’ Erna was furious.
How many times did she have to hear this? She had had enough! She took the long wooden spoon and threatened him.
‘Get out of my kitchen, leave me alone and for goodness sake get dressed! Do I have to look at you like this? Out!’
He was in his old grey ribbed long johns and vest, and was clicking his dentures. It was eleven in the morning and he had just finished reading the papers in bed.
My Grandmother had been up since seven, had got dressed, had breakfast, cycled into town, shopped and then been in the kitchen preparing food for her family. They were coming to visit her for the weekend and she was preparing for her first son, Manfred, my Father, his favourite dish: stewed rabbit marinated in buttermilk with red cabbage and potato dumplings – her speciality. My parents tried many times to copy the dish with her accurate instructions, but it never tasted as good as when she made it.
It was a cold weekend in January. Temperatures in Dusseldorf at night went down to minus fifteen degrees and it was even colder in Herten, where my Grandparents were living at the time.
My mother did not look forward to this trip as they had no central heating in the old house. My Opa was so tight, he would watch religiously how much wood my Oma put on the fire in the kitchen and he often let the coal stove in the living room burn down so low, that when she was not watching, it would eventually go out. I remember often waking up in one of the bedrooms under the roof and although my body was warm and snug under the heavy duvet, there was ice right in front of me, where my breath from my mouth and nose had hit the duvet cover during the night and froze.
After pleading for many years, my Oma eventually persuaded my Opa to have a toilet put into the house, so that one didn’t have to go outside to the outhouse anymore. He decided the best place for it would be in the hall as it would save on building materials and he could use two of the existing walls as part of the cubicle.
He was very pleased with himself when he finally showed us his handiwork. We were all impressed, but only realised later, when walking down the stairs from the top bedrooms, that you could look straight into the toilet. To save on materials, he thought it was not necessary for it to have a ceiling and my Oma was mortified every time she needed to go…so she preferred to do her business as before, in the old toilet outside.
My Oma’s life was a battle from early in the morning until late at night. She had no peace. Opa’s new role, after retiring as a coal miner, was to follow my Oma, check up on her, and interfere. Erna was a strong woman, but had to fight the First and Second World War every day in her kitchen, as Opa was constantly argumentative, opinionated, self righteous and just completely infuriating. He would argue his point until she developed deafness and was able to switch off her hearing aid as soon as he came near her. How brilliant! Now all she saw was an old man, with a red face in his underwear gesticulating. She just switched it off.
But she must have been raging inside.