I watch the cherry trees blossom every year. The blossoms never caught my eye until the summer of 2001. Those blossoms and the fruit they represent caused the death of a dear friend.
I grew up in a small village in Germany. Buch, translated “book”, is nestled in the countryside of Bavaria and supplied a wonderful stomping ground for me and my brothers. We were surrounded with open fields and inviting woods and wonderful people. Friedl and Johann were our neighbors. The first time I met Freidl was when I needed some sugar. She gladly gave me more than I needed. Her husband, Johann, sported mutton chops and a friendly smile. He had helped build a part of Hitler’s beginnings of the Third Reich Empire in Nuremburg—a fact he was not proud of.
Friedl and Johann loved to garden. Their house was surrounded by flowers and shrubs and plants. Their cherry tree was the biggest and healthiest I’d ever seen. When they saw we were sprucing up our garden plot, they handed over plants galore. Almost every day, Friedl would lean over the fence with a sapling of some species. Some mornings, we’d just find the flowers or shrubs sitting on our side of the fence, waiting for us.
Our back yard held a heating oil tank for the heaters in the house. It devoured most of the backyard, but the side area was open. My brother, David, and I planted a garden there. The ground broke up unwillingly. Our edges were uneven and sloppy. But Johann didn’t care. He would stand and watch us work. He directed us on the tomato plants, the lettuce, the onions, and the radishes. His garden like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon mocked our pauper’s patch. But he never disparaged us, just gladly gave his tools for us to use. “What’s mine is yours,” he said, his smile widening his whitened muttonchops. David accepted the handheld plow. Johann popped a cherry tomato in his mouth. “They’re better this way,” he said. “Fresh out of the garden.” He motioned to his radio that sat in front of his tool shed. “You should get some music for your garden. It helps the plants grow.” Then he went back to his own plot, whistling a nameless tune. I would often see him sitting next to the cabbages with the radio next to him. Classical music played as the cabbages grew. Sometimes he would turn his music off and listen as David or I belted out our practice songs from the violin, trumpet, and piano. He would cup his hand over his ear, drinking in every sharp and flat note.
None of our produce was extremely successful. Johann made up the difference, supplying us with zucchini and cucumbers and various sorts of lettuce. His generous heart was displayed in his produce. When my grandparents visited Germany from Indiana, Johann’s main communication was a gift from the garden.
He couldn’t sit still for long. When we enjoyed coffee and cake together, he would only nibble and be gone, if he ate at all. I would see him sometimes in the early morning, eating toast and several kinds of jelly. Other than those moments, I wonder if he really ate or just worked. Often my family would be sitting on our patio, eating dinner, and he would walk past us. He’d wave and call, “Mahlzeit!”, translated, “Have a good meal!”
Some days, we would talk over the fence about religion. Johann spread his hands in front of him.
“When Friedl and I married, I was Lutheran. She was Catholic. Two religions in one family isn’t good,” he said, rubbing his muttonchops. “So we compromised. We become Catholic.” His eye held a twinkle. While he didn’t want to change from his church, he still visited our church during special services. He came spiffed up in a suit—a far cry from the usual dirty gray slacks and rumpled shirt he wore in the garden. “I’m too old for change,” he said. Maybe he was, but that didn’t stop him from being our friend.
Friedl told him not to climb up in the cherry tree to pick cherries, but he was stubborn. He knew the cherries would be perfect—at their ultimate sweetness. He had us in his mind, I think, as he positioned the ladder in place. I wonder if he was humming a nameless tune while he picked. I guess I’ll never know. The ladder slipped. He fell. Johann died in the hospital from a cerebral hemorrhage.
My heart broke as I faced Friedl.
“I’ve prayed for you,” I said.
“So many have prayed already,” my neighbor said, with tears glistening in her eyes. “It doesn’t take away the pain.” My words hung in the air, lifeless. I was sixteen and helpless. I stood by her, certain of my belief in Heaven and uncertain of what happens when one you love dies. Every time I thought about his jolly face and warm wave across the fence, I cried. I couldn’t bring him back. I visited his grave. I placed flowers by his tombstone, resolving then never to forget him.
In spring, cherry trees bloom. I inhale their fragrance and remember Johann. My rendition of “Fuer Elise” sounds better. I think of the cocked head, straining to hear the music. The bounty of the garden and the sugar bowl overflows. I share with others and think of my German friends. In the moments before a meal….when my family gathers around….I almost hear the call of “Mahlzeit!”….I smile as I savor cherry tomato….in loving memory of Johann.