My cousin’s message sends a jolt of sorrow through my heart. Tears shoot into my eyes.
“There’s a newspaper ad from “Bikes for Africa”. They are looking for bicycles. We are cleaning out the garage, can we donate your bike?”
Think, Anne. Think.
I debate with myself.
It’s true, I have not used the bike since its tires are flat and the chain is loose. Last year, I flew to Germany and visited the cousins, but frequent appointments left no time to repair my bike. Well, it’s not really my bike, it’s Mom’s precious bicycle. This old thing is so very dear to me, my last link to home. My last link to the village of my childhood.
In the past decades, whenever I flew across the Atlantic to spend time with my parents, I knew Mom’s bike was there waiting for me. As long as his health permitted, Dad would polish its frame, oil the chain, and ensure it was in good working order. I found this rather hilarious because Mom used her bike every single day, rain or shine. Even on ice and snow, which freaked us out. Without fail, as soon as I announced my arrival, Dad would give the bike an extra treatment. He knew how much I loved cycling. We all cycled. Not for sports, or for health reasons. We cycled because that’s what people in our village do. Trips to the supermarket, to the swimming pool, or to the doctors were always by bike. And then, there were the fun excursions.
As soon as I was home, my first outing would be by bike. Ensuring that the church still looked the same, and my friend’s houses or the favorite spots of our childhood were still intact. Each season had its own flavors. Remembering the summers in my village brings a bright smile to my face…
My flight arrived late yesterday, and I was too tired to ride the bike. This morning, it’s time to mount the saddle. Although it’s standing right at the garage door, in my hurry to tour the village, I struggle to get the bicycle out. Mom’s bike is old, stone old. With a heavy frame, an old-style handlebar and simple chain mechanics, it’s no race bike. But I love it just as is. It feels so good, even though I must pedal harder than others, especially uphill.
Just like I did as a kid, standing in the bike’s pedals, I race out of our driveway onto the street, oblivious to any oncoming car. I grin. I know, I know Dad… your crazy kid, the cars, the danger. I am sure, right now in heaven, my father must be rolling his eyes.
I pedal on, increase the tempo. But before crossing Main Street, I do watch out for cars. Don’t want to get killed on my bike yet, and disappear into the small alley between two huge barns. It’s so tight that the overhanging barn roofs nearly touch. The permanent smell of cows and horses fills my nostrils. Yep, I am back! Leaving the barns behind, two more curves alongside a garden with a pond and I soon reach the Bach, the creek running through our village. Freaked, I see the road block in the last moment, pull the brakes and swing the bike to a screeching halt, almost crushing into two iron bars barring the narrow path that winds along the creek. Darn to the safety fanatics, I curse. They blocked the access, thus preventing adventurers like me to race along the creek’s narrow path and fly over the crooked wooden bridge to the other side. Uggg, no choice. I squeeze my bike through the tight opening and climb on as soon as I am free. I’ll beat the system. The bike knows its way, swinging around the narrow corners and bends, jumping over the bumpy earthen path. It was more fun before, though, because now they’ve even erected wooden sidebars to prevent people falling into the creek.
Pfffff, security freaks! I roll my eyes, pedal harder around the next curve, only to swerve with an extreme side-swing to prevent knocking down an elegant gentleman walking his little dog. I pull to one side, he jumps to the other while pulling the leash, the dog bares his teeth, yelps, barks, wanting to pull lose and snap at my tires. Oups, my heart is in my throat.
“Are you crazy…?” the man yells, and then, “ohhh, it’s you. Back again?”
I give a nod, smile, and throw a ‘hello’ back at him, not wanting to talk. A wave, and I keep racing towards the bridge. I’ll manage that… but before I finish thinking, I am performing a super-jump off my bike. Again? These idiots even barred the bridge? Stupid. They are killing all the fun. Shaking my head, I wiggle my bike through, walk onto the wobbly bridge and decide to spend a little more time at the creek.
I need to exhale. It’s so peaceful here.
Sunlight dances on the meadow grass at the creek’s right where some well-fed sheep rest in the shade of trees ripe with mouth-watering plums. Two horses slowly approach the fence behind me, hoping for goodies. I show my empty hands and realizing I have none, they turn away with hanging heads. Behaving like our dogs, I grin.
I lean on the bridge rail with my chin resting on my hands and watch the lazy creek waters. A bit gurgling, a bit swirling, now and then sending a few sprays over a white stone. Long hairs of water plants billow in its flow. Trying to see if there’s a rhythm to it, I am lost in its beauty. The creek’s smell has a summerly warmth to it, feeling homey. Clouds of gnats perform their dance close to the water, for once ignoring me. Some leaves float by, like miniature boats. When I was little there we so many tiny fish. I don’t see any. Overhead, some white berries hang from a bush. Like a kid, I climb onto the rail, balancing, stretching out far to fetch the berries, throw them to the ground, hop down and squish them with my foot. They make little popping sounds. I laugh, feeling so good. Kiddie stuff, grown up.
When I hear a walker coming, I ride on. At a slower pace, lifting my face to the sun, I am still thinking about the creek. My friends and I used to play here all the time. My own kids played Tarzan there, swinging on the willow branches from one side to the other. An endeavor not always met with success. They landed more than once in its waters.
“I have to buy a dryer,” my mother announced the day my son fell into the creek four times.
My children spent every summer in the village. Mom was old school and, despite some rainy summers, kept up well so far by drying their clothes on the backyard’s clothesline. Until Philippe, our boisterous son, broke her resolve and she bought a dryer to respond to the creek’s pull. She knew it was useless to tell any village kid to keep off the creek, it just doesn’t work. Despite many promises not to go to the water, we all played there, during all seasons, no matter the weather, with a preference for hot summers and snowy winters, when the creek displays most of its beauty. My father played here when he was a kid, as did we who came after him.
My grandchildren will play there too, one day, I always hope.
Pedaling in the middle of the street, I adore how the breeze blows through my hair, caresses my skin, blows up my summer dress like a balloon. Passing colorful front gardens with summer flowers in lavish bloom, their lovely scents waft out to me.
Next turn, the lumber mill at our street corner. Different, yet familiar, the smell of wood. In my memory, I even smell saw dust. Logs are still piled high on the compound. The owner’s son and I were best buddies. We used to climb onto the piles of tree trunks from we were tiny tots. It was forbidden, but we watched out that no one would catch us. Of course, we fell off the logs but never dared to say where we scraped our skin or bumped our heads, fearing the wrath of the Master. A wonderful place to hide and seek, we even crawled into the hollows of the enormous log piles that could have killed us in an instant if they’d moved. Thank God, they never did.
I love the yard, even now, and miss the shrill noise of the lumber saw, whose sound filled my childhood. To everyone living around here it measured the time of day. At eight o’clock sharp, every morning, the saw started turning. From noon to one o’clock all was silent. Lunch time was, and still is sacred in the village. With a last tree trunk being pushed through before six o’clock, we heard the final shrills of boards being cut and then the work day was over.
Today, the Master has long retired. The enormous saw still stands, rusting, soundless. No one operates the lumber mill anymore, but the neighborhood’s florist gave the old workshop a new life. It’s being used as a unique, quaint flower shop. Magical, especially in winter when the old machinery and wooden windows are adorned with Christmas lights. Right now, in summer, even after all these years, the smell of wood has hardly lessened, making my return extra sweet.
Not done with my tour, I ride towards the church and the old school that stands across the pristine graveyard with its stark, black-marbled, gold-lettered headstones. My mother taught in this school when she first came to our village after the war. My ancestors and I were baptized, confirmed, and married in this church. Our family’s history is closely linked to these buildings, so my memories are precious.
I pedal with gusto, a bright smile on my face, enjoying the sights, taking in the familiar scents of each street. Most farms no longer have a dung heap in front of their stables, which used to send out strong smells in summer. I giggle, remembering when my daughter landed in one. The kids kept jumping on the waggling board that the farmer laid across the slurry over which he pushed up his wheelbarrow with cow manure. Michaela missed the jump, landing in the manure pile, feet in the muck. Mom must have bathed that child fifteen times to get rid of the stink.
Village people greet me with loud shouts, “Oh, you are back!”
“Still on your bike, just like your mother.”
I laugh. Yes, my mom never walked anywhere, she always rode her bike.
Eventually, at ninety, she gave up biking the autumn she broke her arm. She didn’t break it biking though. No. She slipped while walking. Some of us could not help but grin at the irony. It was winter when the cast came off, then followed a cold and rainy spring. When I came to visit, she apologized for not having the bike ready.
With a shy smile, she looked at me and declared, “I think I’ll quit biking.”
Much to our relief, and to the relief of her friends who always feared she could have an accident somewhere alone in the woods, where no one would find her. She always ignored our worries. Mom not only crisscrossed the village by bike; no, she made long excursions over far-off fields and through deep forest. All by herself, never afraid, never out of breath.
“Mom, no one at ninety needs to apologize for not biking anymore,” I replied, but I could see she was sad to give up her independence.
At this visit, it took much longer to get the bike ready. The good old thing was a bit rusty after such a long rest. Finally, it worked. I jumped on, and standing in the pedals rode off into the street, as always… when I felt her look, and glanced behind me. Seeing Mom’s sad eyes of longing, I felt an instant guilt riding her bike. Still, she encouraged me, and I made my tours. With one difference; unlike her, I would not ride the bike in pouring rain.
It was time to reply to my cousin’s message.
My heart is torn to pieces. Mom’s bicycle, the only thing linking me to the village. She passed on at ninety-four and I had to sell our two-centuries-old family home. A long and painful goodbye, but I could not bring myself to let go of the bike. My cousins offered to keep it for me in their city home. Every time I visited them, I rode Mom’s bike. Not in the village anymore, but I crisscrossed their city, a place we once loved and called home as a young family. I could have rented a modern, ultralight, easy one. It wouldn’t have been the same. I always wanted to feel the pedals and touch the handlebars of Mom’s old bicycle.
Until now. It’s in bad shape. I don’t even know if I will ever return to Germany. It will deteriorate, be of no use. Will eventually end up in the scrapyard.
“Give them the bike,” said my short message.
Two days later she replied, “They were so thrilled. Said the bike is so nice and very solid. They’ll get new tires and fix the chain. Someone in Africa will be very happy to get such a sturdy bike, they said, and thanked us with joyful handshakes.”
I smile. Mom, your bicycle is still running. Somewhere in Africa.