Face Masks and Shrapnel

A couple of days ago, I made my way into town to get some groceries, choosing my favourite route through the old Southern Cemetery of Munich which to me is one of the most enchanting and peaceful places in all of Munich. After a long period of uninterrupted sunshine, it had rained the previous two days and the graveyards were lush and green, the birds chirping, the air full of hope and fresh life.

An elderly woman walked towards me. I could tell she was enjoying the magical atmosphere of our surroundings as much as I was. We were both wearing face masks. I caught myself smiling at her, at the same time remembering that she wouldn’t really be able to tell. Our eyes met. “These masks, it’s just strange isn’t it?” she said. “And what’s difficult is I can’t wear my glasses because breathing through the mask fogs them up so I can’t see!” 

In an instant, a heartfelt conversation developed between us that did not require much in the way of introductions or small-talk. She shared with me how having to queue for groceries brought up memories of wartime when she would have to queue to get her family’s rationed groceries. I loved listening to her and kept asking little questions in the hope that she’d keep talking. “You know, the things we couldn’t get in the shops back then we would have to barter. We’d collect shrapnel that we could trade for useful things!”. “Shrapnel?” I’d never heard that before. “But why would people want to trade food or cigarettes for shrapnel? What did they do with it?” “Oh” she said “in those days, people collected grenade shrapnel almost like stamps. It was their way to stay present and aware of what was going on, I think.” I was so deeply moved I couldn’t respond.

Cheerfully and animated, she continued to share more snippets and stories. She was full of life and appreciation and her memories carried a deep sense of realization how every single one of those moments had shaped her into the person she was. With gratitude, she confided that despite the fact she’d lost both her parents when she was still a young girl, the values they’d instilled in her had guided her faithfully through life. With pride, she recounted how after the war, they’d rebuilt the city that had always been her beloved home. She’d gone on to lead a wonderful life with her late husband. She took me on a journey with her that spanned wartime and post-war Munich and a life of fulfillment and family joy.

And then she said “Well, but I’ve got to tell you, in all that I’ve experienced in my life, the one thing I was so not prepared for was getting old. No-one prepares you for that!”  “What is difficult about it if you don’t mind my asking?” I wanted to know. She reflected for a minute, lost in thought. Then she replied “Company. Being able to share what you observe with someone. All those little moments throughout the day. Your opinions and perceptions. And having someone offer a different view.” She paused again before she looked at me with smiling and honest eyes and added “And then… I never thought of myself as vain. Until I noticed how my body changed and then it started to not work the way I was used to. I just don’t like it! I really don’t!” We both laughed. We said our goodbyes, not without thanking each other for taking the time to talk.

Turns out the shrapnel collected during wartime had a long-lasting effect extending all the way to that shared moment and beyond. It also made me aware that day. Of how lucky I was to have met her. Of the history that our lives are embedded in. Of all that we carry in us and all that carries us. Of all that connects us. Of the power of sharing that will guide us through anything in life. Even through having to wear face masks.

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