I arrive at the apartment of my newest clients. They are a charming couple, silver-haired and in their 90’s. They invite me in and we sit down to get acquainted so that I can determine the home health services they need. He explains that they have recently moved from their big home in Loudoun County hunt country to this modest first floor apartment because it better fits their current needs. They need to be near their grown daughter and they need single story, first floor living because the wife is recovering from a stroke.
They both speak strongly accented English, one of the Scandinavian countries, I think. She confirms this by telling me where they were born and the different European countries in which they have lived. They raised their children in France. As she talks, she gestures constantly, her one hand playing a supporting role as she tells me their history.
I can see that both husband and wife are slim and fit. I learn that at one time they were both avid downhill skiers in winter and extreme hikers during warmer months. More recently they have enjoyed long walks along the Appalachian Trail out in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia. Her eyes tear up as she tells me she fears she will never again be able to go on the walks she so loves.
I glance around the apartment to get further clues to her hobbies and preferences. I see beautiful examples of handmade lace framed and under glass, proudly displayed. I know a little about lace making. She confirms that it is, indeed, handmade bobbin lace from Europe–she made it when she lived there. She learned as a child. There is a piano against one wall. She couldn’t possibly play, could she? Her husband proudly confirms that she is a talented pianist, despite the fact that she has only one hand. He tells me she was born with her left arm ending at the wrist. She tells me her mother never made much of a fuss about it and treated her like all the other children. She says she never felt she was at any disadvantage. Remarkable.
Inevitably, we talk about The War. She tells me she has a secret that she does not share with many because she still fears there could be repercussions, she does not want to endanger me. He tells me she sometimes has nightmares about it, all these years later. She confides that she worked with the French underground as a young woman living in occupied France. She tells me that during the first winter, under the Nazis, her family eventually burned everything they owned that was made of wood so that they could cook and try to get warm–first their furniture, then the wooden trim from the walls, then finally the doors. She leans in closer and tells me that for food they ate things that she never dreamed she would eat. The animals you find in every neighborhood, she tells me.
“I hate chicken,” he says. I see from his face that he is looking back on a time I will never know. I’m confused, they had chickens in their neighborhood? No, she tells me gently, during the war he was captured and held in a prisoner of war camp in Poland. “To this day I can’t eat chicken,” he tells me. He explains that prisoners in the camp all had jobs. His was to kill the chickens. Every day he killed the chickens, which were then used to feed the prisoners. He tells me that he killed thousands of chickens. At first it was sickening, but, in time, it didn’t bother him as much. But he will never like chicken.