The Box from Cologne

Author: Katharina Gericke
Translator: Jennifer Walter


Last night we found a small box on Färberstraße. It lay in the trash, ready to be taken away to the landfill. It contained an entire half of Trudi’s life. There are gaps in time between the hand-written letters and black-and-white photographs that I cannot fill.

Trudi had a habit of writing on half sheets of lined, letter-sized paper that she ripped from a notepad. She always ripped out three sheets, even when she only filled two. She stuffed a blank page in with the letter each time.

The story from Trudi’s box begins in the year 1948. Trudi was 30 years old. She had placed a lonely-hearts ad in the Kölner Rundschau because she wanted to find someone to marry. He should be respectable, Roman-Catholic, and want children. She could offer everything that would make a home welcoming and cozy.

“I even have my own apartment on Florastraße. I still live with my mother, but she is moving to Bad Bentheim soon to live with relatives.”

Back then, a woman was considered an old maid at 30. What Trudi did, who belonged to her family, and where she came from could not be deduced.

The war is a black hole in Trudi’s life.

She was a secretary and searching for a position in an office. She had two offers: one that paid well, and one that didn’t.

By the time she met Jupp, she had just taken the better-paying position.

Jupp responded to her ad in the paper, and a meeting had taken place in a small park.

When Trudi wrote to Jupp about her apartment on Florastraße and her job, they had decided after the first meeting that it just wasn’t a good fit, and that the matter was settled.

“Dear Jupp: If we both must admit that we are not compatible enough, I would like to ask for one more meeting to put my heart at ease. Because I have so many worries. Although I am embarrassed to ask… Yours, Trudi.”

They met again on an agreed-upon date, and Trudi complained to Jupp that the better-paying job was too demanding. She was under so much pressure that she didn’t know which way was up. Together they tried to figure out whether Trudi should give up the better job in favor of the worse job; although the pay wasn’t as good, it was less demanding. And that’s exactly what she did.

In addition, Trudi complained to Jupp that a stray dog had wandered up to her, but her mother did not want it because it was too much work. But Trudi said that her mother should not worry about it, because she – Trudi – would care for the dog by herself as much as possible. But she absolutely could not manage by herself with her terrible office job, which made her frazzled and fed up. It was all so difficult! Alas, the dog had already become part of the family.

Somehow Jupp stole a kiss from the overwhelmed Trudi.

Jupp, then a young man, looked good in the picture. Later photos showed that he was still attractive as he aged. But in every photo, he came across as wistful and looked as though he felt somewhat lost.

Meanwhile, Trudi had been a tough little tank her whole life.

Jupp lost his brother and brother-in-law in the war. The death certificates, which were delivered in the final months of the war from an office on the front, could still be found in Trudi’s box. Then, right after the war ended, Jupp’s sister died, and his mother did not have enough money for the grave or the flowers. Then she received 175 Reichsmarks from a relief agency, with explicit permission to pay for the flowers they wanted as well. That was before the currency changed over. The exchange receipt is still in the slim, wooden box, which was originally used to present two tiny bottles of “Henkell Dry” sparkling wine.

Jupp’s mother: that was Maria. Her husband died in the 1960s.

They raised three grandchildren, who were all they had left from their daughter.

One of the grandchildren was named Kathi.

In the early 1980s, Trudi received a letter in delicate, light blue handwriting, in which Kathi expressed regrets that she could not attend Maria’s funeral. But she had ordered a bouquet through Fleurop that was very expensive.

She wrote that to Trudi asking if she could be so kind as to follow up with the cemetery management to confirm, personally, that the bouquet looked as expensive as it was. That is, she feared that she would be cheated by Fleurop or the cemetery management.

The letter came from East Germany.

How Kathi got there, who the other two grandchildren were, and what became of them, I don’t know enough to say. The trail ended there.

As mentioned, Jupp had stolen a kiss from Trudi that day in the park.

A few days later he visited her at her home. Her mother was also there at the apartment on Florastraße.

Jupp had only wanted to say that things with him and Trudi just weren’t right. And the kiss in the park had been a mistake. And now he would like to say goodbye for good, in person.

Trudi wore a proud pout. And she said coolly that everything was fine. But her mother made a hot-tempered ruckus, called Jupp a womanizer, and threw him out of the apartment.

He shouldn’t have been allowed to kiss her if he didn’t want anything from her, seriously! That’s how it must have been.

The next day Trudi wrote Jupp another letter, although she didn’t really want to have any contact with him. And she accepted that things couldn’t be right with the two of them because they just weren’t compatible. She didn’t need something like that. And Jupp could take her at her word! But she simply had to write again, because the dog had been missing since he left the apartment.

And now he was gone!

“Dear Mr. Jupp: Could it be that he ran after you? And that you have him now? Just in case, I am asking you sincerely to bring him back to me, because I have become very attached to him, even though he is a lot of work.”

She had just realized how much work the dog was, now that she didn’t have to care for him anymore.

Trudi wrote sentences that spiraled like a chair swing at its fastest speed. She had already asked all her neighbors on Florastraße if they had seen the dog. But no one had.

Jupp didn’t have him, either.

So the dog remained missing.

But as a result, Jupp and Trudi met again. At the fountain, in the park, on an agreed-upon date, and at a determined time.

That must have been a pleasant evening. After that, they had a proper relationship.

How do I know?

Specifically, because Trudi’s mother sent a letter to Jupp’s parents, saying that their son was in a relationship with her daughter. She was well aware of it, even if Trudi denied it. She found it unfathomable that they, as parents, had not been informed. And it was not proper for an unmarried young woman to have such a relationship with a man.

The parents must have gotten a Catholic shock, although they had completely other concerns at the time, which stemmed from the war.

Trudi’s mother received a letter that was written on a typewriter.

They wrote that they were in more modern times than in their parents’ youth. But Trudi and Jupp should make it legal nonetheless, because it was not proper for folks who were Roman Catholic “to do these things (you already know what I mean, dear Ms. B) with anybody unless you are married!”

And they were going to give that scoundrel a stern talking-to!

That’s just what the family did.

And soon after, there was an announcement of their engagement.

For Trudi, things fell quiet in the time after the wedding.

But evidently her dear Jupp wrote a letter shortly before the wedding to a close female friend who worked at the employment agency. She wrote him back a typewritten answer from her business address.

Is it possible that this woman was married?

He must have written to his friend about his doubts. I don’t know the exact reason.

In the reply it said: “What should I say about this? Marry her — or gather your things and run away. You want guaranteed happiness, but there is no such thing. You should always plant four-leaf clovers on the green field between yourself and the city. Whether it will grow and bring you joy, or lead to happiness, who can say?”

The friend added a handwritten postscript to the letter with details about a good position at an automobile insurance company that Jupp should apply for right away, because she could only hold the position open for nine days.

Jupp’s first job was as a plaster worker. After the war and his time as a prisoner, he studied under a milliner. But he understood quite well that the time for hats and plaster would soon pass.

He got the job at the insurance company and worked there until he retired. Trudi stayed at the worse office job. They got married and lived on Florastraße. Trudi’s mother moved shortly after to Bad Bentheim. They had no children.

Many joyful photos from the box show them celebrating holidays, traveling to the mountains or having a picnic in the area. With friends, relatives, her coffee pals, and his bowling buddies.

I selected a photo of Jupp out of the case in which he is an older man, sitting on a bench in a park. He is intently watching a squirrel that jumped on his arm, nibbling a nut that he had given him. A bag with more nuts can be seen next to Jupp.

I took out a photo of Trudi showing her at a coffee table, surrounded by many people, with cakes, pastries, and such. They are looking at Trudi and toasting her, all of them are sitting while she is standing, her arm swung into a position that appears to be making a toast. Maria is also there. It makes me happy that I can recognize her in this picture, after I had visited Trudi’s history like I was visiting this city. Since then, I have returned home. I placed the box in a chapel next to the freeway and lit a candle for Trudi.

I took out a third artifact, as well: a small calendar book from ‘66, that (except for a few small payment notes for the bank book) was as good as empty. But in the small book lay a four-leaf clover.

On a blank sheet (the kind that Trudi always put in the envelope with her finished letters) I want to add:

“Last night: a dream. I am walking through a street, which was probably Färberstraße. I cannot find a way out because a giant heap of rubble is sitting on the horizon. I go back, but then I am suddenly thrown to the ground because pieces of a house are flying through the air again … ”

It was a mild day the next morning. White like milk, it felt young to my eyes.

What still felt old from the dream was the nose that could smell the ruins of the war – blood and dust.