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.
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