I remember my first coffee klatch with Tanta Frieda. The little table in the sun room was set with a cherry-themed tablecloth, dishes from her rarely opened china cabinet and a basket of sweet rolls, as if my parents were the guests, but it was only my sister and me. Our parents were somewhere on an island in Canada, fishing, relieved no doubt, to be alone in the wilderness and not have to worry about us wandering off and drowning or being eaten by the bears that were rumored to have once torn the door off the refrigerator to get to the ham inside. My mom said she preferred to sacrifice the ice box rather than her delectable little daughters. So Linda and I spent the week in Algonquin with my mother’s German aunt, Frieda. Little did I realize at the time what a rich experience it would be.
She seemed to be ancient, pleasantly round, shapeless actually, and was never seen without a full length apron over her dress, except when she went to town. Thick stockings covered her slightly bowed legs and well worn sensible shoes tilted her feet toward the outside. Her teeth were light yellow, and her hair was rolled into tight sausage curls, held in place with bobby pins. The color wasn’t exactly blonde, but it wasn’t silver either. I always wondered if the color was the result of washing her hair with the rainwater she gathered in a barrel by the back door. “Oh, it makes your hair so soft. It’s the best thing to do,” she would tell us in her thick German accent. I declined each time she offered to rinse my freshly washed hair with her precious liquid that came directly from the gutters on her roof, lest my locks, and gee, maybe even my teeth, turn the same color as hers.
My sister and I were the only children in her life. I never heard any stories as to why she and Uncle Paul, who existed only in memories of Christmases long past, never had a family. It was not talked about. She doted on us, treating us like little adults. We thought she was a bit weird. My sister, four years older and much wiser, didn’t like going to her house for overnights. Maybe because she made us watch Lawrence Welk and dance the polka with her around the parlor. I didn’t admit it at the time, to do so would have been heresy to my older sister’s opinion, but clomping around the room, singing “Roll out the barrels, we’ll have a barrel of fun!” actually was a barrel of fun.
Saturday was shopping day. Frieda took off her apron, dabbed on lipstick and powder, grabbed her pocketbook and ushered us out to the garage, a separate dirt-floored building with heavy doors that she managed to pull open by herself. There in the middle of the garage sat what looked like Donald Duck’s grandmother’s car from the cartoons – a shiny black square box sitting on skinny wheels.
Its enormous headlamps, like two searchlights, rested on either side of a well-polished grill. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Tante Frieda’s car was a 1928 Model A Ford, an embarrassing relic in my childish 1950’s mind.
“Get in children,” she said as she held the door open.
“I think I’ll stay home,” I said, not wanting to be associated with something so old and out of date. Anything different, anything out of the ordinary was oh, so wrong.
“You won’t be staying home. Get in.”
I clambered into the enormous back seat where my sister had already hunkered into a corner. I crouched down and braced myself to be humiliated. Off we went, chugging and sputtering toward town. The car turned heads along the way and people pointed. Let me die right now.
Now I understand what a treasure it was and how fortunate I was to have had the experience of zooming along, maximum speed was thirty mph, in an antique driven by another antique.
At the bakery we got to choose sweet rolls for our coffee klatch. “I’ll have a chocolate éclair!” My sister took an apricot Danish.
I was thrilled to drink coffee like a grown-up for the first time, especially knowing that my mother would disapprove. “Coffee is not for children,” rang in my head. Tante Frieda poured the heavenly scented brew into my cup, filling it only one-quarter full. I filled it to the brim with rich cream and added six sugar cubes. It was divine.
I watched in amazement as Tante Frieda put a sugar cube between her teeth and sipped her coffee right through it. “Only grown-ups do this,” she explained.
Frieda’s sister, Hedy, dropped in and joined the party. The conversation turned to World War II, and Hedy told us how she and her husband, Walter, hid from the Russians in barrels in their back yard. “Those Russians were so dumb, so crude. They took over the house. They wanted to make some food and found potatoes in the cupboard. They knew enough to wash them, but they had never seen plumbing before and when they saw the toilet, they thought it was a potato washer. We covered our mouths and stifled a laugh as they pulled the chain and the potatoes disappeared down the drain.”
I was agog with the story – war, Russians, hiding in a barrel. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized the Russians were America’s ally in WWII, which means that Hedy and Walter were - Nazis. Which means Tante Frieda …
It was a coffee klatch to remember.