The Boarder – Julia Hirsch

On April 14th, 1947, five days after Ilse placed her usual ad in the Aufbau, the weekly addressed to German-Jewish refugees, a letter arrived from Dr. Laurence Glattbach, Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Texas. “Dear Madam,” it read, “my relative, a lady of distinction, arrives on the Queen Mary from Southampton, England, on May 5th. I hope you will be able to offer her accommodation. Clara, my second cousin, spent the war years in Bath, England, and is the widow of the late Benjamin Cranach, formerly of Hannover. Please let me know your disposition in this matter. Should you be agreeable, I will make plans to accompany her to your home upon her arrival.”

Ilse could not have been more excited. Although she had never met one, growing up she had heard a lot about them. As leaders in industry, university graduates and generous givers of charity, they set the standard for what Jews could achieve. Young girls like Ilse, whose father was a side-street tailor in Altona, near Hamburg, didn’t dare dream of marrying a Cranach. But having one as boarder, here, now, in New York after everything that had happened, was almost as good. Ilse wrote to the Doctor at once. The arrangements felt a bit rushed but Ilse thought nothing of it. She doubled up on sweeping, polishing, and dusting. She put her old copy of Heine’s lyrics  on her prospective boarder’s night table. She covered Clara Cranach’s bed with the finest linens from her personal stock. She perfumed the closets with handcrafted sachets of lavender, orange peel and cloves. And to give Clara’s room a soft touch, Ilse put a small African violet about to bud on a side-table.

The trees in Riverside Park were whispering green on the sunny Monday afternoon that Dr. Glattbach ushered in Clara Cranach. Despite knowing Clara’s age and pedigree, Ilse half expect her new boarder to flutter in like a creature out of a Strauss operetta, twirling a pink parasol. But Clara was nothing of the sort. She was a stocky woman of 67 with broad shoulders, a thick neck and short coarse grey hair. No sooner that she walked in the door than she brushed aside her relative, marched into the dining room, and demanded a cup of tea.

A bit dismayed by Clara’s brusqueness, Ilse rushed to the kitchen. All she had to do was boil the water and pour it over the Assam leaves she’d already scooped into the tea pot.  Along with two Rosenthal cups and saucers, and a shallow Meissen bowl filled with Cake Master’s ladyfingers, the tray was ready. Within minutes Ilse was serving the fragrant brew. Clara took a quick sip and indicated with a flip of her hand that she was done. Dr. Glattbach looked on in silence.

Moments later, huffing and puffing, the elevator man and the super brought in Clara’s steamer trunk. Ilse guided her new boarder and relative to her room. Dr. Glattbach let out an “Oh!” of admiration while Clara went straight to the bed, yanked off all the linens and squeezed the mattress. “Das genügt,”  (“That will do,”) she said primly, then, lifting her chin in disdain,  pointed  to the mess. Flustered, Ilse reassembled the bed. Her fine linens had evidently gone unnoticed.

Ilse retreated to the kitchen with the tea tray. Troubled by her boarder’s manner, Ilse dropped one of the Rosenthal cups. As she bent down to pick up the shards, so cleanly severed from each other as to make a repair possible, tears welled in Ilse’s eyes. At the approach of  Dr. Glattbach, she quickly wiped them away with the back of her hand. Looking up, she heard him say gently, “I’d like a word with you.”

“Excuse me,” Ilse said, pointing to the floor. She pushed a loose pin back into the knot of greying chestnut hair piled on top of her head. She’d been too busy preparing for her important boarder to get to her hairdresser, Sofie at the Golden Tresses, for a touchup.

“I’ll be back tomorrow,” the Doctor said. “Then we’ll go to the bank. I want you to know what’s what.”

 “I’ll see you out,” Ilse murmured.

Waiting for the elevator, the Doctor looked sad. “I was hardly a teenager the last time I saw her,” he said.

Ilse didn’t know what to make of this.

“Time is cruel, isn’t it,” he added.

As twilight painted the kitchen windows a delicate apricot, Ilse prepared Clara’s dinner. Given Clara’s response to the tea and the linens, there was no knowing what to expect. Ilse’s previous boarders, hailing from Denver and Chicago, had favored standard American fare but not since her husband’s death had Ilse prepared Sauerbraten  steeped in red wine and juniper berries, mashed potatoes, and apple sauce powdered with cinnamon. The fragrances filled Ilse’s heart with longing for the old days.

Ilse placed Clara’s meal on a pretty tray, and knocked on her door. “Rein,” the terse equivalent of “come in,” rang out with martial authority. Ilse entered and slipped the tray onto Clara’s table. The volume of Heine was nowhere to be seen and Clara had put the African violet in its place. She was still wearing the wool suit and heavy shoes she’d arrived in. Ilse left the room in silence. She’d thought of wishing Clara a blessed meal, the words Ilse and her late husband  exchanged  at dinner, but decided not to. She knew nothing of Clara’s religious observance and barely remembered the appropriate blessings herself.

Back in the kitchen, Ilse made herself an omelet and toast. She liked to reminisce while having her frugal meal. In Altona, where she had lived her entire life before becoming a refugee, she and her beloved  husband had owned a factory that made marzipan sweets enjoyed all over the country. They arrived in New York without any capital, or any American “know how.” At home they had been business owners, people of some standing in their community. They ended up as housekeepers in Catskill hotels.

But then someone who knew someone offered them the management of Éclair’s, the coffee house on the Upper West Side and a haven for refugees. Serving European-style pastries  kept  Ilse connected to the world  from which she was now exiled. Clara had suffered losses too—of language, of home, of context—which might well account for her graceless manner. To help her adjust to her new life, Ilse thought of showing  Clara some of the finer neighborhood features—the park, the River, the view of the Palisades—where  Clara might even  meet some old acquaintances.

Smelling of lemony aftershave, Dr. Glattbach arrived promptly the next day. He visited for a few minutes with Clara, then came to the kitchen. “I’m all set,” he announced. “Me, too,” Ilse said as she slipped the handles of her new calfskin handbag onto her wrist. The Doctor tapped Ilse lightly on the shoulder. “You can call me Larry, and I’ll call you Ilse, is that okay?” Then he offered her his arm. Ilse, still proud of her flawless complexion and slim figure, knew well enough that informality was a way Americans created the illusion of closeness but it didn’t mean a thing. She certainly wasn’t going to get chummy with a business connection.

“So Ilse,” he started after they’d walked a few steps, “how’s it going?” The bank was only two blocks away, next to Cake Masters on Broadway.

Not sure to what the Doctor was referring, she answered, “Mrs. Cranach had a nice breakfast.”

“I’m sure,” the Doctor answered. “What I mean is her disposition.”

“Oh,” Ilse answered. She knew better than to blurt anything even vaguely critical about a boarder, especially to a relative. She wondered why the Doctor would even ask such a question.

“Back in Hannover, when we were kids, Bettina, her daughter, and I were close, and we still are. When things got bad, Clara let her staff go, locked up her big house, and went to England, to live with Bettina. It wasn’t the greatest arrangement, what with Bettina having five children and living small in Bath while her mother was used to living big. So soon after VE Day, we came up with the idea of Clara coming to New York which has so many people like her and  good hospitals just in case. Anyway nothing  was left for Clara to go back to.”

Ilse nodded. She wondered what experience of war and displacement  Dr. Glattbach, a whole generation younger, might have had.

As for the bank, the dealings were simple enough. Dr.Glattbach would deposit the payments due Ilse directly into her account, but Ilse could also draw up to $50 a month from Clara’s funds “for incidentals.” Once the papers were signed, the doctor headed straight for LaGuardia. “Let me know  how things are going,” he said, as he handed Clara his business card. Embossed in red italics were the words, “specializes in wills and inheritance.”

Within three days, Clara gave evidence of settling in. Mid-morning, she appeared at the kitchen entrance  in a tailored skirt, one of the crisp white blouses that Ilse laundered for her, a felt cloche, and white kid gloves. It was almost warm enough for cotton dresses and raffia hats but there was no evidence that Clara had any. “I’m stepping out,” she announced. Ilse wondered if she had any idea where she was going. But given who she was, she was bound to resent any interference. Half an hour later Clara, using the key Ilse had given her, was back clutching  a bag from Cake Masters. The crumbs left on her table later revealed that Clara had consumed a cheese Danish.

Every morning as she entered Clara’s room, Ilse looked around. By now she expected that Clara would have unpacked some mementoes from her steamer trunk but the African violet remained unrivalled. Ilse took the appearance of two buds as indication that Clara had a cordial relationship with the plant.

That inspired Ilse to propose a stroll to Riverside Park. The park’s beauty had always been a comfort to her, and it might have the same effect on Clara. They set out on a Saturday afternoon at the time when  neighborhood Jews took their Sabbath strolls. It was almost a week into Clara’s residency. May was bestowing its gentlest breezes, and the park hummed with German, French, Dutch and even Yiddish. One could easily think oneself back home, before the war, in the Altona Volkspark, the lindens in bloom along some lovely path.

No sooner had the women settled on a bench facing a grove of budding cherry trees than  Clara grabbed Ilse’s arm. Shaking with alarm, she whispered “Was ist das schrecklishes Lärm?” (“”What’s that ghastly noise?”)“Just cars,” Ilse assured her. Clara wasn’t appeased. The air, she noted, was nothing like the Engadine. She lowered her eyes and folded her hands in her lap. When a little girl, running to catch a Spaldeen, nearly crashed into Clara’s legs, Clara snarled, “Im Gottes willen” (“For Heaven’s sake!”). The girl broke into tears as she mumbled a breathless apology. “I can’t abide children,” Clara said loudly, “especially small ones. They’re untamed animals. My daughter has a whole pack of them.” The remark struck Ilse hard. She and her husband had longed for a child, but there were complications. All they ended up with was heart break and a spare bedroom.

“I want my tea on the terrace at the Schloss,” (“the Castle”)  Clara announced.  “What are you waiting for?”

“Excuse me?” Ilse said, hoping for some clarification.

“It’s the gardener’s day off, and I won’t have that brat of yours interfere.”

“Let’s head home,” Ilse said. “Tea will be served in your room.”

That evening, when Ilse brought Clara her supper, Clara took her a back yet again.

“You must do something about those roosters,” she said without even glancing at the mushroom soufflé Ilse had prepared. “I just can’t have my sleep disturbed like that. Have the shocket deal with them.”

“Roosters?” Ilse repeated. The farm animals closest to West End Avenue were miles away in Staten Island. As for a shocket, a ritual slaughterer, Ilse had never seen one in action. The very idea disgusted her.

“You’re as obtuse as my daughter, always questioning what I say. For heaven’s sake, pay attention.”

“Of course,” Ilse answered. The park outing must have derailed her.

Ilse was relieved the next morning when Clara prepared herself for her errand. Cake Masters was crowded Sunday mornings with weekend shoppers, and Ilse worried at how long Clara was gone. But she returned without any signs of trouble and spent the rest of the day quietly in her room.

On Monday, a week into her residency, just before leaving the apartment for her morning errand – of which she hadn’t said a word to Clara—she stopped in at the kitchen and announced, “I want my hair trimmed. And do instruct the gardener to bring in some fresh almond blossoms for the library and the white hydrangeas for the dining room.”

Ilse struggled to keep a straight face. That little African violet was all the plant life she could provide. And Clara’s hair was so short, she could have trimmed it herself.

“Of course,” Ilse said, ignoring Clara’s mention of flowers, “I know just the person. I’d be glad to take you there.”  Sofie’s  Golden Tresses was up the street.

“What do you mean, take me, I expect the hairdresser to come to me,” Clara said.

“I’m so sorry,” Ilse said, “but it isn’t like that here.”

“Well, then….” Clara’s voice trailed off. She said no more about flowers and hairdressers who made house calls.

“Why don’t we just go,” Ilse said, deliberately making her voice sound cheery. “You’ll meet Sofie, without obligation, and who knows perhaps you’ll even take to her.”

 “I have no choice, do I,” Clara sighed, “but all of this is far below my standards.”

“We’ve all had to settle for less,” Ilse said.

As the women set out for Broadway, Clara gripped Ilse’s arm. Every few steps Ilse offered Clara a conversational tidbit—the name of one of Sofie’s clients that might be familiar, a little story about a woman in the neighborhood Clara might enjoy meeting —but Clara, miles away, remained silent.

Sofie greeted them at the door. “Delighted to meet you,” she said, extending her hand. Clara ignored her. “It’s a privilege” Sofie said, as she led Clara to one of the plump leatherette chairs that furnished her well-lit salon. Familiar with the curious ways of her refugee clients, Sofie winked at Ilse. At 10:30 in the morning her place was already buzzing. Ilse waved to some of Sofie’s regulars.

“I’ll do your hair myself,” Sofie said to Clara, as she fastened a fresh white towel under her chin and spread another one over Clara’s lap. Clara let out a deep sigh but the look on her face remained impenetrable. Ilse sat down nearby next to a pile of Saturday Evening Posts. It was the first time since Clara’s arrival a week ago that Ilse felt she could relax. Someone else was taking care of Clara. Ilse’s eyes wandered around  the store, coming to rest on Sofie’s display of nail polish. Although Ilse disdained painted nails— like those of her previous boarders, Florida –bound widows—she nevertheless harbored a secret longing to transgress her own standards of propriety, just once, and  paint hers a shrill pink, or  even fire- engine red. She was struggling with her little fantasy when she observed a woman make her way towards her. Ilse noticed at once that the stranger walked heavily on her heels and that her brown lace-up shoes with perforated cap toes were just like a pair her own mother had worn. The woman seemed to be  heading for the  magazines when she suddenly walked over to Clara. Hands on hips, she positioned herself into a fighting stance in front of Clara.

Du ? Hier?” (“You? Here?”)  The woman’s words came out as a horrified hiss. Clara turned white as a sheet. The stranger was in no hurry to move, but Clara was. She tore off the white towels with which Sofie had covered her, flailed her arms, and leaped out of her chair.

Ich könnte nichts machen!” (“I couldn’t do a thing!”) Clara screamed as she stamped her feet.

Ilse bolted to Clara’s side. The stranger quickly stepped away.

“Get me out of here!  I’m sick of being blamed!” Clara howled.

Ilse could almost hear heads swiveling in Clara’s direction. She held her breath for a moment, then let out a sigh of relief that no one at that hour understood  Clara’s German.

“What is it? What’s the matter?”  Ilse brought her worried face close to Clara’s purple one, but Clara didn’t answer. The stranger was back in her seat on the other side of the store, her head buried in her hands. Sofie had her arms around her. A few moments passed before she came over to Ilse and Clara.

“Any idea what this is about?” ”she asked.

“No, not at all, but please get me a taxi,” Ilse said. She wished the ground would open up and swallow her whole.

“Call me,” Sofie whispered.

Ilse tried to put her arm around Clara as the taxi pulled up, but Clara pushed her away. Clara’s usual pallor had returned but her body had grown quite rigid. Ilse suddenly felt very resentful of Dr. Glattbach having left her to deal with his relative.

Back in the apartment, Clara dashed to her room, banged her door shut and locked it. Ilse could hear her sobbing loudly and muttering to herself, but she couldn’t make out what Clara was saying.

Ilse rushed to the kitchen phone.

“I’m so sorry,” she said to Sofie, “But who was that?”  She was quite breathless.

“I’m the one who’s sorry,” Sofie said, “but I can tell you, Augusta’s the nicest woman, you just won’t believe her story.”

“I’m so embarrassed,” Ilse said, “and I owe you money, too.”

 “Don’t worry about the money, I didn’t even start with that boarder of yours, just promise me you’ll talk to Augusta. She’s still here, crying her eyes out.”

“I’ll be over as soon as I can,” Ilse said.

She went down the hall and put her ear to Clara’s door. The sobbing had stopped. She started preparing Clara’s lunch. For eight days she had trimmed parsley, carved up lemons as she arranged Clara’s meals on one of her Blue Onion dinner plates. But today she was utterly spent, and plopped down a slab of vegetable casserole au gratin  with only a chunk of tomato as decoration. She suddenly wished her previous boarders, as easy as boiled potatoes, were back.

Just as the chimes on WNYC—Ilse’s favorite station—rang noon, llse heard Clara unlock her door. Ilse breathed a sigh of relief. Her boarder was still alive, and she could get on with serving her lunch. Despite the heat of the day Clara, oblivious, was bundled  in her plaid blanket. Her hair stood up in stiff little tufts like the bristles of a frightened cat, while the floor around her chair wore bits of grey and white. A pair of curved nail scissors were agape on the little table. Next to them, the African violet had been pulled out of its pot, its roots like little legs flailing in the air, and its two flowering buds crushed to death. llse left the lunch tray on Clara’s table, whisked  the nail scissors into her palm, and left the door ajar. Worry knotted her stomach.

Within an hour, Ilse returned to Clara’s room. Not a sliver of lunch was left. Clara had been a tidy eater, aligning knife and fork neatly on the plate, but this time, the fork was on the floor, the knife and the plate, dotted with cheesy flakes, was akimbo in her lap, and the blanket was littered with bits of carrot. Clara was fast asleep in her chair, her plaid blanket up to her chin.

Ilse slipped away to the Golden Tresses. Sofie was at the cash register when she walked in. “So glad you came, Ilse. I want you to meet my friend.” Sofie led her to her private lounge where she and her workers took their breaks. The woman who had unhinged  Clara sat in one of the easy chairs reading the Aufbau. As soon as she saw Sofie and Ilse walk in, she got up, and approached them with a warm smile.

“I’m Augusta Weland,” she said, as she extended a hand to Ilse. Ilse hesitated a moment.

“You have something you want to tell me,” Ilse said. She could hear the irritation in her voice. Augusta Weland, whoever she was, had robbed Clara of her sanity.

The woman hung her head in embarrassment. Sofia left the room.

“I’m willing to listen.” Ilse said. She wanted to keep her word to Sofie that she would give her client a hearing.

The women left the Golden Tresses and headed for Schrafft’s, a block away. Ilse couldn’t help noticing that the woman’s expression had turned from her earlier defiance to sadness.

“I hope you don’t mind,” the woman said, as she forged ahead into the restaurant. She seemed in as much of a hurry as Ilse to get the conversation over with.

As they smoothed their skirts, settled their handbags on their laps, sat down and ordered some coffee, Ilse paid close attention to the stranger’s manner. She showed none of the diffidence Ilse had noticed among some of the newer refugees in the neighborhood.  Her English was more heavily accented than Ilse’s but she didn’t slip into German.

“Of course you must wonder about me,” the woman said, “But perhaps you will understand. You and I have something in common.”

“We do?” The woman’s remark touched a nerve. But Ilse wasn’t ready to slip into closeness with this stranger. She might just want money from her, or a free room, there was no knowing. Ilse felt her shoulders rise involuntarily into a shrug  and tried to look away.

“I’m not looking to justify my outburst, that’s between me and Sofie.” The woman  leaned forward, resting her folded arms on the table. “It’s just that I wanted to meet someone  like me who had some connection to Mrs. Cranach.”

“What was that you said?” Ilse gasped. It seemed impossible that this ordinary woman  knew her boarder. But for the past year or so, since the end of the war and the gradual emptying of the DP camps. Ilse had actually seen wrenching reunions unfold right in the middle of Broadway. She might have witnessed one of her own.

“You’re surprised, aren’t you, a plain woman like me. But I was Clara Cranach’s  companion for twenty years. I laundered her undergarments, read to her, arranged the flowers, wiped her tears, helped raise her daughter, Bettina. The husband was dead, long before my time, some scandal about an inheritance and some bank accounts, and she was always  difficult.”

The woman stopped for a moment. Their coffee was getting cold. Ilse  stirred some milk and sugar into her cup.

“Shall I go on?” The woman started stirring her cup as well, but took it black.

“The day Mrs. Cranach told me to pack my bags and get out, my world ended. I lost my purpose, my place. I was a picture without a frame, you could say, rubbish in the street.”

Ilse knew exactly what the woman was talking about. The same had happened to her, but at least she had a nice apartment and a good address and made a nice living taking in well-heeled boarders. This modestly dressed woman probably didn’t have any such advantages, aside from Sofie’s friendship and her nicely set chestnut hair with hardly any white in it.

“How was it for you?” she continued.

“We left in ’35,” Ilse said.

The  words popped out like little beads, devoid of expression. Augusta’s connection to Clara Cranach was still hard to believe, here, now, so suddenly, out of the blue.

“Well then, three years later, the noose had tightened even more, and Bettina, that’s the daughter, such a dear, wanted us to come to England. She’d married young, a nice boy from a good family, wanted to get away from Professor This or Rabbi That to tea, she didn’t care for people with fancy titles. She had been a sparky child, liked animals more than dolls, had friends from the other side of town. Her mother was always jealous of how close we were. But Mrs. Cranach just packed her bags, told me to get out, never even paid me my last month’s wages, and to think she could have helped me get to America or Cuba, she certainly had the money.”

“But you came out alright, it seems,” Ilse said.

“You could say that, thanks to my cousin in Boston who got me here. But before that, I had to find shelter, my parents were dead. The gardener had always been kind to me, though  he had some sympathies with the Party, but he’d appreciated that I helped his boy with his school work. The child was a bit slow and I’d always been good at arithmetic and reading. He hid me in a wheel barrow and took me to the cantor’s house so the Brown shirts wouldn’t see me. Those boys would have beat me up, the very ones to whom I used to slip barley sugars when they came to the door. But they changed overnight, beat up any Jew they could find. The cantor let me stay until I could figure out my next step. Such a good man. I hear he was shot during the last roundup in ’41.”

“You went through some terrible things,” Ilse said. She had heard stories like that from her customers at Éclair’s but hadn’t made a point of listening closely, they were so dark and filled her with guilt at her own easy survival.

“All these years, I wanted to let her know what she’d done.” Augusta stopped a moment, looked into her cup, then looked up again.

“It’s made me wonder, hasn’t it you, what all that was about, the beautiful things, the fancy manners, the pride in family.”

 Ilse nodded, then felt a twinge of remorse as if any assent on her part was a betrayal of  her boarder, of the things she herself valued.

“Since you knew Mrs. Cranach so well, maybe you also knew her relative, Dr. Glattbach.”

“Glattbach?” Augusta hesitated, then broke into a tender smile. “You must mean Ludwig, little Ludwig. Of course I remember him, such a nice fellow. He used to come along with his parents on holiday with us to the Engadin. Played chess with Bettina. They went to America in ’32, to Texas, where they have big ranches.”

Ilse looked into her empty cup. She didn’t even remember having any coffee. She picked up her spoon and stirred the remaining sugar. She wanted desperately to cry.

“She lives with me now, you know, it’s me who brought her to Sofie’s.”  For a moment Ilse wanted to take the words back. Augusta might just take out her rage on her.

“I know,” Augusta said, “that’s why I wanted to meet you, that’s why I felt we had a connection, something rooted in the past, a frayed thread perhaps, a fractured mirror.”

“Like my broken…..” the words stuck in Ilse’s throat. She both wanted and didn’t want to talk about the shattered Rosenthal cup.

Augusta seemed to ignore the words. She too picked up her spoon and stirred.

Ilse put her hand on Augusta’s arm.

“I never would have known.”

“I have to go now,” Augusta said. “I don’t expect you to avenge me, I just wanted you to know my story.” She reached for the check tucked under her saucer, and headed for the cash register. Ilse could hardly catch up with her.

“Thank you,” Ilse said.

She watched Augusta stride away. She didn’t want to go home. She wanted to peel back time and be back with her husband, holding hands and  strolling under the shade trees in the Volkspark.

She went back to Sofie’s.

“She worked for her in the old country, right?” Sofie  said. A  Brooklyn native, a decade or so younger than Ilse, Sofie didn’t know much about the war beyond  D-Day, VJ Day, and  her uncle’s love for Mussolini.

“Yes.” She didn’t want to say any more about Clara. That would be a breach of trust.

“But from what I can see, that boarder of yours is a bit, if you don’t mind my saying, a bit crazy.”

“It has to do with the past,” Ilse said.

“Well, I can tell you one thing,” Sofie said, ‘if you ever want another boarder, Augusta Weland would be a good one. She probably didn’t tell you, she’s so modest, but her boss left her  a lot of money.”

“Thank you, my dear,” Ilse said. “I better go home now.”

On the way there, Ilse pondered her next move. There were almost weekly reports on the radio of refugees flinging themselves out of windows, or jumping in front of buses. Sooner or later Clara might do something dangerous or injure herself. 

Clara was standing in the kitchen when Ilse got home. She was still wearing the outfit she’d worn to Sofie’s but her skirt was awry and stained at the side, her shirt hung loosely, no longer tucked in and she had taken off one of her shoes.  The remaining shoe made Ilse gasp. It  was the same style as Augusta’s—and  her mother’s.

“Where’s my tea?” Clara demanded.  It can’t have been much later than 1:30. “Do I have to do everything myself now?” She snarled at Ilse the way she had at the little girl in the park. The Clara she was seeing was no longer the esteemed Clara Cranach who had moved in less than two  weeks ago. 

Despite the early hour, Ilse brought Clara her tea tray, as carefully laid out as on that first day. Then she went to her desk in the living room and took out her best notepaper and gold- nibbed  fountain pen. She got no further than “Dear Dr. Glattbach.” Her hesitation wasn’t about Clara, it was about the past, just the way Augusta had put it. She wasn’t ready to give up on the world in which the Cranachs set the standards. Perhaps Clara would  make amends to her former servant, ask for forgiveness, form some sort of  new relationship.

When Ilse went to Clara’s door the next morning, to bring her breakfast, she found the door locked. She knocked but got no answer. She waited. When she could wait no longer she fetched a screwdriver and pried open the lock. Clara had removed her nightdress—a long-sleeved grey cotton garment—and was sitting naked on the floor, moaning what sounded to Ilse like some prayer, the Kaddish, perhaps, the prayer for the dead. Ilse immediately covered  Clara  with her plaid blanket and left the room.

The  business card Dr. Glattbach had given Ilse was on top of all the others in the small top drawer of her writing desk. It took some effort but she managed to get in touch with him by phone. “Bettina and I half expected something like this to happen,” he told Ilse in a placatory voice, “that’s what I was thinking of when I asked you about her disposition.”  Before making plans for Clara to come live with Ilse, he had reserved a place for Clara, on a “needs basis” at an eminent nursing home in Riverdale.

Within a day Dr. Glattbach was back in Ilse’s dining room.

“She hasn’t eaten a thing for two days,” Ilse told Dr. Glattbach. She hadn’t bathed either, but Ilse hoped that at the orange and lavender air freshener she had sprayed around Clara’s door would cover the evidence.

The Doctor appeared not to notice and was eager to deal with the crisis. Ilse took his take-charge manner as evidence that he wasn’t just a lawyer, but  had some sense of family, some awareness that there was a heritage to uphold. That brought her some relief. The past was gone but not forgotten. 

As soon as he finished a hasty cup of tea, the Doctor knocked on Clara’s door.

“Lass’mich in Ruhe!,”  (“Leave me alone”) Clara growled.

Ich bin es, deine kleine Ludwig,” (“It’s me, your little Ludwig”) the Doctor said, putting on a childish voice.

Clara, wrapped from head to toe in her blanket, came to the door at once: her appearance –and her stench—revealed her terrible transformation. But the sight of her relative somehow cheered her, and within a couple of hours, and Ilse’s diligent care, Clara was washed, dressed and ready to step out. “We’re going to the bank,” Dr Glattbach told her. Ilse knew well enough that they were headed for Riverdale.

“I’m sorry this happened,” the Doctor whispered to Ilse, as he nudged Clara out the door, “you’ve been the perfect caregiver, such a lovely place, and so right for her.”

Clara left without a murmur. As soon as the door was closed, Ilse burst into tears. It was not the loss of a boarder that made her weep but Clara’s brokenness. The excitement she had felt  at having a Cranach as boarder had been misplaced. Clara had unraveled somewhere else, far from the Upper West Side, somewhere in Bath, or perhaps when she first saw a smashed window  in Hannover or had a vile slogan shouted at her. From now on, Ilse would have to settle for blue-haired widows on their way to Miami.

There was, however, one last task Dr. Glattbach asked Ilse to perform and that was to  pack up Clara’s belongings in  her steamer trunk and ship it to the Home. Ilse entered Clara’s room, the way a medic returned to the battlefield after a rout. With a mix of disgust and grief, Ilse moved through the detritus of Clara’s last days.

The closet held no surprises. The trunk did.  Scattered about were ripped  pieces  of a torn snapshot of a cheerful family of two adults, five children and a large dog as fluffy as a mop. A snapshot, brittle with age, showed a buxom woman who looked like a younger version of Augusta in hiking clothes standing under some trees in a forest. A thick brown folder was full of letters dated 1919, written in the old handwriting that Ilse could still read, from banks in Palestine, Uruguay and London, and a photograph on heavy stock of a large house with columns and a balcony.  Glued to its back was the portrait photograph of a portly man leaning on the stump of a fake Corinthian column. A shattered hand mirror and a torn yellowed night gown of the thinnest chambray were tucked into a side pocket. There had once been a life. But it was no more.

Two days later, Ilse placed her customary ad in the Aufbau.  She gave some thought to Augusta but quickly dismissed it. She wanted no reminders of Clara, nor did she want a servant. She painstakingly glued the broken Rosenthal cup before she realized that the glue would soften at contact with a hot liquid, and that it could never again be used. So she threw it out.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.