Chloe and I arrived at home just after 3 pm, weighed, measured and inoculated. She was being a little fussy, but I had been told to expect that after her needle. Kevin was on the couch watching a Cheers rerun when I walked in. He barely looked up when we entered, but his grunt indicated he noticed we’d arrived.
“Can you undress the baby for me, please? Mrs. Ball has something she asked me to stop over and pick up.” I didn’t give him time to decline and headed to my neighbour across the hall and rapped a little more sharply than I intended to. It took her almost 2 minutes to answer, but I had heard her shuffling about and calling out that she was coming, so I waited patiently and put a smile on my face in anticipation of her eventual arrival.
“Tara!” she cried, “how lovely to see you!” Her greeting was warm and friendly, as though we hadn’t agreed to see each other earlier today.
“We just got back from our appointment and I thought I’d stop by for those cookies you mentioned. Is this a good time, Mrs. Ball?”
She mad a tut-tut noise in her throat and opened her door wider, inviting me in. Her apartment smelled like an odd mix of molasses and sugar, camphor and lilacs. The latter emanating from her wardrobe as her fragrance of choice. A feast for the senses, though not entirely unpleasant. It reminded me of my childhood visits to Grammy’s.
“Stay for a cup of tea, with me, won’t you, dear?” I told her I’d love to but had to just quickly let Kevin know I’d be a little longer. He was surprisingly docile and when I returned for our visit, I walked in her open door and headed for her tiny kitchenette to finish the tea.
Mrs. Ball had the bachelor unit on our floor. The house offered a total of three bachelor’s, five single room apartments and one two bedroom apartment, which we occupied. The bachelor’s were spacious, open concept rooms with a kitchen and breakfast cordoned off in the sunniest corner. Mrs. Ball had opted for sea green sheer draperies instead of the popular vinyl mini blinds we chosen. With her dusty rose walls, it made for a nauseating decorating combination, but I looked away to avoid the feeling of vertigo it created, particularly when mixed with the unusual aroma.
“Are you still using the schoolhouse tea pot?” I called out. I could see it on the counter. I knew it was a silly question. As expected, there was the ancient, beaten kettle on the bright, red stove burner. Steam had just started to trickle through the flap and was making a very soft whistling sound. Its black plastic handle was wearing a groove where hundreds of hands must have carried it over the years. The stainless steel dented and in need of polishing, with black tarnish developing near the bottom rim. Lifting it from the burner as it whistled, I wondered how many cups of tea had been made using that ugly old tea kettle, and poured the boiled water over the bags in the ceramic school house to let it steep.
Mrs. Ball was fussing in the bathroom while I made the tea, but she was calling back to me to keep conversation going. When she returned to the kitchen and saw I had made tea, she clapped her arthritic hands in delight.
“Wonderful! You went ahead and made yourself at home.” She said pleased. If that had come from my mother, I would have seen right through it for the negative insinuation I had overstepped my welcome. But Mrs. Ball was genuinely pleased I was comfortable enough to make the tea and I was happy to see her delight.
I brought the tea pot, and matching ceramic milk and sugar containers to the table, while she laid a half dozen cookies on a sweet little Christmas plate to bring to the table. I wanted to jump up and take it off her hands as she struggled to adjust her cane and balance the plate to come over, but knew she would manage. In fact, helping in such a way, may be mistaken for thinking she was incapable. She might be willing to have me take her garbage out, but she would rail against any insinuation it was because she was incapable of doing it herself.
So, I sat demurely at the worn trestle table, crossing my feet at the ankles as she made managed the 8 steps from the counter to the table and settled herself in. While I discreetly inquired about her health, I poured some milk in my tea and stirred it with a little spoon.
“ha! You won’t be getting rid of me anytime soon,” she said and I laughed. At 91 years young Mrs. Ball was the epitome of health, with the exception of her ambulatory issues from a bad hip and she was too stubborn to replace.
“Get rid of you? Heck, I want to know how to live as long as you and I figure you’ll need to stick around to give me the secrets of longevity”. I had stuck a piece of her molasses snap cookies in my mouth and the last few words were mumbled around the mouthful of heaven. No wonder Mr. Ball would be in a better mood. These were divine.
“The secret is happiness,” she said patting my hand gently. The smile she gave me was curious, maybe even a little sad. As though she regretted I could never achieve it. Happiness or longevity, I wasn’t sure. But her somber mood and eyes disappeared quickly as we moved the discussion to our plans for the holidays, Chloe’s first Christmas, her children and their grandchildren. I invited her to my mother’s for Christmas Eve dinner as I had done every year we’d lived in the big house and she politely declined as she had done every year.
“They’re still fighting about who gets me this year” she said with a twinkle, “once they’ve got it all sorted out, I’ll know what’s what and you won’t have to worry about me being lonely.”
Her family were horrible people. Materialistic, narcissistic and selfish. I humoured her good spirits about them fighting for who would “get” her this year. More likely it was a fight about who was stuck with her. When she told me of the way they would “fight for her” the first year, I had invited her on the spot to our festivities. When she declined, I tried not to be hurt, but later realized I was hurting for her, not for me and that allowed feelings to linger. Two Christmases later, I wouldn’t be hurt anymore, but I would be a little sad.
We gabbed for another hour and I made my niceties to leave. She bundled up another dozen cookies in a small tin she had on hand and placed it in my hands at the door. Just as I was turning to leave, she grabbed my hand. She was much stronger than I expected, her grip like iron.
“Child, love is patient and blind, and even perhaps, forgiving. Please remember to love yourself too.”
How odd, I thought as she gave my hand one last grip and let go. I couldn’t’ shake the perplexed look on my face as I forced a smile through, thanked her for the tea and cookies and bid her good day. I was still musing on her comment when I walked slowly in the door of our unit and was slapped alert by an onslaught of noise.