Today I met one of my neighbours, a friendly elderly lady who was out tending the most beautiful blue hydrangea at the front of our building. I’ve been admiring this plant, and keeping an eye on its progress as it has begun to bloom. Blue hydrangeas are the most incredible blue… and have always held a fascination for me… not as a fragrant flower (since they are not), but one that stuns simply with its colour. Blue flowers are not nearly as common as other colours, and this particular shrub actually blooms pink, unless it has the correct PH in its soil.
My neighbour, named Herta, held me transfixed in conversation for the good part of an hour. I learned about her love of plants, and how she feels that ‘Life is for giving’. How she gives, by nurturing plants so that they bloom and give people pleasure through their beauty. She has lived in this building since 1986, and many of the trees and shrubs that are out in the gardens surrounding the complex, are there because they outgrew her rooftop patio, and were transplanted and nurtured by her personally.
She told me about her childhood, about the Russians invading Germany, about being in a concentration camp at 13 years old, about labouring at widening the railroad tracks since the European lines were too narrow for the Russian trains, about rations of only one slice of soldier’s bread per day, about being trapped with her family inside the firestorm of the frontline, about her father’s legs almost being amputated by being run over by a tank, about losing everything, so that all her family had was each other. And about how her father always taught her to be clean and pure and loving and open and to be thankful to God for life. She talked about only having one dress to wear, and to follow her father’s advice, she would wash it in rainwater, lay it in the sun to dry, and hide in the bushes naked until it was ready.
She also talked about her name… about hating it as a child and wishing her mother would have named her anything but. A teacher of hers, made a class project about explaining the story of the German goddess, Herta (also known as Nerthus), who was the goddess of fertility. From what she explained, Herta is the root of the word ‘heart’… and that she has had no choice but to accept and embody the name, and live her life from the heart, giving and caring and smiling (despite all the trauma), and reminding everyone to do the same.
She spoke of how happy she is to be alive, and to be free… and in all this, she held a big smile, and laughed and joked and then hugged me good-bye with the promise to leave a bouquet of hydrangeas at my door once they were more fully in bloom.
I walked away from this conversation, with a huge smile, feeling full and happy, and really blessed to be alive. What a reminder of how contagious happiness can be… and how all of us could make a difference in the world if we hold an outlook from the heart that is as bright and sunny as Herta.