More than just tea

A chance en­counter with an elderly stranger changed our colum­nist’s life in dif­fer­ent ways.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Living - Star2@thes­tar.com.my

ABOUT a year ago, I made friends with an elderly woman who lives on the same street as me. I didn’t know it at the time, but she would change my life in a num­ber of dif­fer­ent ways.

I had just re­turned from an evening jog and was lean­ing against the out­side wall of my apart­ment block, try­ing to catch my breath, when I first saw Anne (not her real name). She was hob­bling along the pave­ment to­wards me, a heavy shop­ping bag in each hand.

Her head was bowed so I couldn’t see her face prop­erly, but her pe­tite frame and fluffy white hair re­minded me of my late mother. As she drew level with me, I peeled my sweaty body off the wall and asked her if I could help her with her bags.

She stopped, looked me up and down, pos­si­bly as­sess­ing if I were friend or foe, and then smiled. “That would be lovely,” she said, “but you look worn out your­self. Be­sides, I live just 10 houses away.”

“I’ve been jog­ging,” I said, tak­ing one of her bags. “I’m just a bit sweaty. Noth­ing serious.”

On the short walk to Anne’s house, she told me about her hus­band who had passed away six months be­fore. I sensed she was lonely, but I was still sur­prised when she in­vited me into her house for a cup of tea. I pointed to my ex­er­cise gear and told her I couldn’t pos­si­bly sit down in my sweaty state.

But she in­sisted.

“My fur­ni­ture will never be more im­por­tant than the peo­ple who sit on it,” she said.

I felt drawn to her warmth. And yes, I know, as a rule it’s not a good idea to go into a com­plete stranger’s house.

For all I knew, her back gar­den could have been lib­er­ally dot­ted with the shal­low graves of peo­ple who’d dis­ap­peared mys­te­ri­ously over a num­ber of years.

Maybe she was in the habit of drag­ging the same heavy bags along the streets as part of her ruse to get sym­pa­thetic peo­ple to help her. Maybe her dear-de­parted hus­band had re­ally suc­cumbed to ar­senic poi­son­ing more than a quar­ter of a cen­tury be­fore.

I was only sure of one thing: Some­times, we have to go with our gut feel­ing. And my gut was telling me she was the real deal.

That day marked the be­gin­ning of our friend­ship. Soon we had es­tab­lished a rou­tine. Once a week, I would go over to Anne’s house to play backgam­mon and have a chat.

Even at 82 years old, her mind was ra­zor sharp. In be­tween games, which she won the ma­jor­ity of the time, we would talk about our re­spec­tive lives over a cup of tea. Ev­ery time I vis­ited, I learnt some­thing dif­fer­ent about her.

There is so much we can learn from pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. As Anne con­tem­plated the end of her life, her only re­gret was that her hus­band wasn’t around to share it with her.

“See this tea set?” she said one Sun­day af­ter­noon as she poured me a cup of tea. “It was a wed­ding present from my grand­mother. There’s also a din­ner set in the same de­sign. It’s 60 years old now and I still have all the pieces.”

“That’s good,” I said. “It’s such a pretty de­sign.”

“Good?” she said, her voice raised ever so slightly. “That’s not good at all.”

I stared at her, try­ing to un­der­stand what she was say­ing.

“Shortly af­ter my hus­band died, I read a story on the In­ter­net about a woman who passed away, leav­ing be­hind clothes, per­fume, tow­els, crock­ery and cut­lery, all of which she’d been sav­ing for a spe­cial oc­ca­sion. Her hus­band buried her in the silk lin­gerie that he’d bought for her some years be­fore. He’d found it in a drawer – with the la­bel still on.”

“I’ve read that story too,” I said.

“I did more than just read it,” said Anne. “I be­gan us­ing all the stuff I’d been sav­ing for spe­cial oc­ca­sions. My best china should have been used so much that it’s now miss­ing a few pieces and has a chipped plate or two. And it wouldn’t bother me, be­cause I would only think of the joy it would have brought me ev­ery time I used it.

Seven months af­ter I first met Anne, she slipped in her bath­room and frac­tured her hip. I didn’t know it at the time, but that fall was to change her life in unimag­in­able ways.

She un­der­went surgery, which in­volved in­sert­ing a metal plate and screws to keep the two pieces of her hip to­gether.

“Just think of all the fun I’ll have when I walk through an air­port’s metal de­tec­tor,” she quipped when I went to visit her in hos­pi­tal.

Anne didn’t make a full re­cov­ery and now walks with the aid of a Zimmer frame. She no longer lives 10 houses away from me. She lives in New Zealand with her son and his fam­ily.

Ev­ery day, I think of Anne as I drink my morn­ing cup of tea. You see, she passed her pretty tea set on to me, with strict in­struc­tions that I had to use it as much as pos­si­ble.

And I do.

Check out Mary on Face­book at www.face­book.com/mary.sch­nei­der. writer

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