A small German flower shop in the weeks before Christmas. The store is crammed with pine boughs, glittery wreaths, bouquets adorned with baubles. The proprietress: an unhappy woman in her indeterminate forties, flirting with the flower delivery man, mocking me for the way I sweep the floor and write my numbers (like an American, not like a German), giving me tired flowers to bring home at the end of the day, backhanded kindnesses (“Here, why don’t you take these gladiolus? I hate them.”)
A man shuffles in on a sunny morning and stands adrift among the flowers. Doing my best impression of a confident, happy salesperson, I walk over and ask if I can help him.
“I’m looking for a Grabbeigabe.”
Grabbeigabe. It’s not a word I’m familiar with, but I know the word Grab—“grave”—and I know the word Beigabe—“addition” or “extra”—and that, combined with the man’s demeanor, lets me work out the rest. I’m out of my depth and call my boss over, telling her what the man had told me.
“What do you want? A Grabbeigabe? What’s that? What do you mean?”
“Flowers…for…at the grave…”
He stammers and struggles, can’t bring himself to say the words that would explain exactly what he needs: flowers to place on a coffin before it’s lowered into the ground.
My boss refuses to understand, or to be understanding. “Look around, we have all kinds of flowers. You want these? These? These?” She waves at the jolly Christmas bouquets, with their sparkles and Santas, and the man flounders.
“It’s just a bit…kitschy. Dafür war sie mir zu lieb.” She was too dear to me for that.
“Kitschy” doesn’t go over well. My boss yanks a plastic Santa out of a bouquet. “You can just take this out,” she snaps, thrusting the flowers at the trembling man. “See? It’s fine. There’s nothing kitchy about it. You want it?”
The man doesn’t want it. He clearly doesn’t want any of it: not the flowers, not the shop, not the abrasive proprietress and her hapless assistant, and certainly not his reason for being there in the first place. He doesn’t want it, but he knows there’s no getting out of it. He surrenders, takes the flowers, flees.
At least, I think he takes the flowers. I can’t actually remember anymore, just as I can’t remember what the man looked like, whether he was young or old, whether he pulled away in a car or had to stumble down the sidewalk. He’s no more than a contour of grief in my mind now, a bare-bones outline of misery. Dafür war sie mir zu lieb. Who was “she”? For 18 years I’ve wondered. His mother? His wife? His daughter? In the course of those 18 years I’ve lost people dear to me, and I’ve watched friends and loved ones lose people dear to them (mothers—and daughters). I’m more acquainted with grief, and my experience has sharpened the edges of my memory of this man even as the intervening years have blurred everything else.
Despite my naivety, I knew even then that I had played a bit part in making an already terrible day that much worse for the grieving man. I wanted to run after him and apologize, distance myself from my boss and the personal discontent she took out on everyone else. I wanted to tell my boss she had been cruel, then leave the shop and never come back.
I didn’t, though. I didn’t say anything, not to him, not to her, not even when she tried to engage me in conversation once the man was gone.
“Was war denn das für einer?” What was up with him? Callous, dismissive, genuinely not seeming to grasp the situation.
I shook my head and went back to stripping the thorns off rose stems. I had an answer for her, but I swallowed it, along with my shame. I didn’t want to talk to her about the man, didn’t even want to think about the man any more. And perhaps because of that, I have thought about him, over and over again, for all these years.
“Ein Trauriger.” The unspoken response that echoes in my head to this day. It was so simple, so obvious. He was sad.