When I was little, I was very lucky to have a great-grandma in Jarmen.
Her name was Betty and she only spoke “plattdeutsch” to me. A language spoken in the north of Germany.
She lived in a 1 bedroom apartment on Demminer Strasse, which is the main street that meanders through this small town in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. It had neither a toilet, nor a bathroom, nor a washing machine, nor a telephone, nor central heating. The loo, which consisted of a row of 3 different black wooden outdoor privies, was in the backyard. So if nature called, you were forced to walk past the neighbours and down two flights of stairs — no matter whether day or night, whether cold winter or hot summer.
Then, either sweating in the heat or freezing in the cold, you sat in a small room with no light and could neither flush nor wash your hands. The horror stories of the rats that supposedly once bit a man’s most private parts, that grandma once told me, didn’t help the whole thing either. As a child I therefore always tried to stop my bladder calling as long as possible, because I was literally scared of sitting in this dark wooden hole.
At night, however, if I didn’t dare to go out, or if I didn’t want to walk past the neighbours in my nightgown, I was allowed to use the chamber pot. This was actually not a chamber pot but rather a huge enamel bucket. You can picture the rest of this episode yourself.
I remember the strange, sweet smell of the privy to this day and every time I see these types of toilets here next to the huts in Norway or when I use one, I remember those black wooden privies in the backyard in Jarmen and have to smile a bit.
The Demminer Strasse in Jarmen
When you came through the heavy wooden door into the narrow, tiled hallway of this apartment building, it usually smelled of freshly cooked or freshly baked goods. This was mostly due to the fact that almost all parties in the house had their front doors open. If you passed the apartments, you could see directly into the kitchen of Auntie Käthe, Auntie Elli or my Oma. The ladies in the house rarely missed anything and visitors could hardly sneak up the stairs undetected. So it was normal for Oma Betty to talk to her neighbour Elli, while she was cooking delicious rice pudding or pasta with tomato sauce for me. The apartments of these two widowed women were only separated by a small hallway in the middle. So it was almost like a large kitchen-cum-living-room in Demminer Strasse, where all the important news of the day were talked about and evaluated. If at all, there were seldom any arguments.
The house was a small community where everyone helped everyone. Everyone knew everyone, and everyone somehow knew everything about everyone. The man in the house, who also acted as the caretaker, was the owner Paul. He was a man always up for mischieve, well built, and lived with his wife Auntie Käthe on the first floor. His allotment garden was right behind the black outdoor privies.
Aunt Käthe and Uncle Paul had for a long time the only telephone in the house.
So if I wanted to reach my grandmother, I either had to write a letter or call Aunt Käthe, who then called her name through the hallway to the next floor (remember the doors were always open) so my Oma came down with her slippers and, as always, neatly dressed was able to talk to me on the phone.
The only oven in Omas apartment that was used was in the living room. The oven was heated with the coals that lay in the cellar. Llighters were mostly the self-dried orange and mandarin peels. Every 3–4 hours in winter there was a refill, the stove was not allowed to go out because the apartment had fairly high ceilings and there was a draft through the windows. Whenever grandma therefore came to visit us, she arrived back to a completely cold apartment. That’s the way it was.
The oven was made of ocher-coloured tiles and in the oven tube the baked apples were made, for which Oma always cooked real vanilla sauce. Lunch was kept warm in there and wet clothes dried in front of it. And, very importantly, here she also warmed up the cherry stone and chestnut stone pillows before going to bed. These were then placed under the heavy feather bed just before going to bed.
Grandma Betty lived in this house for more than 65 years. Without a phone, bathroom, washing machine and central heating. She had never learned to drive a car. Wherever she wanted to go, she got there by foot or by bus.
From Bud Spencer to Theo Lingen
The gem of Grandma’s living room was her radio, which was behind the door, right infront of the window, through which you could see the courtyard and the black privies. On that radio she often listened to the news in the morning and a few “Schlager” from time to time. Then she kept humming to the music. She knew exactly when which programs was played and switched them on at right time. It was one of those huge, wooden 50s radios that cracked when you turned it on and it took a little while before it finally made a noise. Its sound was a little scratchy but still full and rich.
Opposite the radio, the glossy brown “Schrankwand” (living room cupboards) covered the entire wall. And it was not only filled with her special glasses, books, porcelain animal figures but also a few pictures. More importantly for me, Oma Betty kept all the boardgames.
Grandma always liked to play! And that was something that distinguished her from all other adults. Oma Betty, was not only funny, always in a good mood and could tell stories like no other, she also played from morning to night Ludo, Mikado or Halma. She solved crossword puzzles with me and threw the dice until I no longer wanted to throw it myself.
From where she got this perseverance is still a mystery to me.
Grandma didn’t just know the radio program by heart. She also knew when the next series of “Reich und Schön”, “Denver Clan” or “Dr. Stephan Frank” was on television, knew all Bundesliga teams and loved to watch all kinds of sports on television.
Grandma liked her television, which she finally swapped from a black and white television to a real color television with remote control in the 90s.
She was also the one I watched hundreds of “Heimatfilms” with — that’s why I now know all Theo Lingen, Peter Alexander, Roy Black, Heintje and Heinz Ehrhardt films and strangely enough, I can still enjoy them today. Perhaps also because the memories of how Grandma could be “amused” by them.
Her favourite however were Bud Spencer and Terrence Hill films. Here she was crying with laughter, when she watched them She found it funniest when the “brawl” really got down to business and people flew around.
But what Oma enjoyed as much as watching television was “sitting by the window”.
From her bedroom window, which was on the first floor on the left side of the apartment building in Demminer Strasse, she could not only watch the cars, but also all the strolling pedestrians of Jarmen. She did this extensively, mostly on a daily basis, and knew almost everyone by name. Her elbows protected by a soft pillow, she sat by the window for hours, chatting, nodding to greet or waving to the people she knew. When I visited her, we often sat together at the window facing the street. Me on a chair right next to her so I could look outside at all. Sometimes, when she felt a little cheeky, she would scream loudly “Ey” right across the street so that people looked up at us. At the window they however only found me staring perplexed, because Oma Betty had crouched down below the window sill, and was giggling next to me, not visible to the pedestrian. When I saw her face, I began laughing myself.
Grandma was a wonderful, funny woman who always made me laugh and who I loved to be with. Even though she only had one privy in the backyard.
Grandma Betty could tell stories. Sad stories from the war, but also lots of funny ones. And even if I don’t remember all the details, her way of telling them was what made my Oma Betty stand out. I could never get enough of these stories and was captured the moment she began talking .
“Grandma, tell me a story from the past,” I usually said, and then I listened until late at night (I was always allowed to stay up late when I was with her) tucked in under the heavy down duvet of her huge oak bed — my little feet warmed by the cherry stone pillow that we had warmed up in the ochre oven earlier.
She told me about her husband, her family, her brother and brother-in-law, about all the people she had lost during the war. About how terrible the war was. How painful the birth of her daughter was. She told me how she had once seen Hitler. She described how she waited many years after the war for her husband Hans, who was captured in Stalingrad but released by pure chance and then walked back home to Jarmen. In the meantime she had thought that he had die. Then when he was standing right in front of her in the courtyard she did not recognize him. She said he had changed so much, was completely emaciated. His little daughter (my grandmother) didn’t even know him and it took time to get used to her dad again.
She told me about the annual festivals that took place in Jarmen and about the woman that sold chocolate marshmallows. When one of the boys wandering around asked for the third time “watt`s dor inn” (what’s in there?) She angrily replied “Hunnschiet. Hunnschiet is dor inn” (dog shit, dog shit is in there) whereupon the kid ran away with his friends laughing loudly. This was one of my favourite stories back in the day because Oma told it so funnily.
Back then I always thought what a great time it must have been and what a great man my great-grandfather must have been. But I was also kind of sad that I never met him.
How difficult it must have been for a single mother like my grandma, I would only realise later.
The Fashion Icon
When I was with her, I would sometimes sneak into her cold bedroom and secretly open her bedroom closets. They all smelled of soap and, stacked in absolute perfection, contained everything from bedclothes, sheets, petticoats, tights, towels, hats, tablecloths. They contained what felt like thousands of blouses, skirts, dresses, coats, shoes. If my grandma had anything, it was clothes — but not a single pair of trousers.
As long as I knew her, she wore dresses, blouses or skirts. The most extraordinary, in terms of wearing pants, was wearing culottes. But that was more for special occasions. She has not worn jogging pants, jeans or even a short skirt in her entire life. When it was warm, she just wore a thinner skirt that would cover her knees and a short-sleeved blouse.
When Oma got dressed, everything from stockings held with suspenders to underskirt and “Büstenhalter” was there. Leather shoes with wedge heels, in winter a warm woolen coat with a fur collar and a hat. When it was time to go to town or to see a doctor, every now and then the brooch was clipped on!
Then Grandma was all dolled up, ready to go.
She was perfectly dressed every day. She either washed her things in the dry cleaner or by hand, because she didn’t have a washing machine. She always had her hair tied in a bun, which she undid every evening when she went to bed. Short hairstyles were never her thing.
I still dream of her today, of this great woman, from whom I learned so much and who influenced me so much.
Thank you Oma Betty. Thank you for your big heart and for sharing those moments with me.
You are and always will be the best.
Originally published at https://www.mikkelstante.com.