The occasional trips to Bückeborg to visit his great-aunt, Tante Anna, were filled with wonderment and joy. His Oma’s sister, also a survivor, lived in the small town, east of Köln, about halfway to Berlin.
There’s a castle in the town, Schloss Bückeborg, that always fascinated him, its pale yellow façade lined with more windows than he thought in the entire world. He wondered who could live there? Was there a little boy just like him? Or was it filled with countless children who played in the grounds, running barefoot on grass as perfect as carpet and as rich in colour as the sky before a storm.
Tanta Anna didn’t live in a Schloss. Her home was a small house, flanked by garden beds given over to growing vegetables. He loved those garden beds, their rich loamy scent, earth the colour of sepia and filled with possibility.
Sometimes, Tante Anna would let him help dig out the potatoes she grew. He’d take each tuber, covered in a coating of earth that smelled like renewal and brush them delicately with his small hands.
Later, he’d help Tante Anna wash the kartoffeln in the kitchen sink, water turning to mud as each potato emerged clean, its brown skin wet with what looked like teardrops.
There was no potato peeler, only a small sharp kitchen knife and Tante Anna taught him to peel those potatoes with that knife.
He’d take care not to cut too much into the flesh, the trick to remove just the skin, leaving the starchy flesh exposed, clean.
Tante Anna would slice them into thin slivers, and fry them in a pan spattering with hot oil. They’d eat them in the kitchen, at a small wooden table with uneven legs and chairs aged with layers of paint, flaked and peeled and exposed.
He felt exposed sometimes, but not here. Here, he felt safe, his fingers in the rich earth that smelled like rain. Later in life, much later, he learned there was a word for that scent – petrichor. It remains one of his favourite aromas.
His Oma and Tante Anna often laughed over a nip of Schnapps, cherry flavoured, and poured into little glasses shaped like thimbles and printed with a drawing of Schloss Bückeborg. His Oma rarely laughed, so to see her happiness made him feel good. Sometimes she’d let him lick the rim of the glass, the cherry flavour sweet and intoxicating.
A second nip of Schnapps often followed the first, the laughter growing louder, the cheeks more flushed. They’d pinch his cheeks then and say nice things about him that made him feel good. Not many people said nice things about him.
He’d listen to them talking about the war, although he was too young to understand what that meant. He ate his fried kartoffeln, listening and laughing when they laughed, even if he did now know why.
They’d stay only a few days, him sleeping on the couch, wrapped in faded blankets that smelled like dust. His Oma shared a bed with Tante Anna. There was only one bed in the house.
When they went home, his fingernails would be grimed with the rich earth of Tante Anna’s garden, a badge of honour he carried with him as long as he could, until his Oma got out the wooden brush and made him scrub his nails clean.
He still can’t take in the aroma of a rainstorm in summer and not be taken back to Bückeborg, to Tante Anna’s fried potatoes and laughter that rang for days.