My mother in law, Sonia, has been lonely since her husband died. Luckily, she’s made a few new, widowed friends (also in their 80’s), and they go out for lunch at least once a week.
Eve is from Scotland. A few years ago, she flew to London to have lunch with the queen. English people who happened to be born on the same day as the Queen’s 80 years ago, were invited to a rare and special lunch in the palace as part of a grand celebration. Since Sonia is also English, this impressed her mightily, and they became instant friends. Eve is very independent, vivacious, and likes driving nice cars. She keeps buying new cars so she can give her old ones to her grandchildren when they get their license. Cushy deal for the grandkids, I’d say.
Titine, is Belgium and even though she came to America 50 years ago, she has a thick lolling accent when she talks. She makes wine from scratch and happens to drive at least 40 miles over the speed limit everywhere she goes. When officers pull her over, she says, “What did I do wrong, darh’ling”. She invites them to her home for chocolate cake and coffee and tells them she has lived here 50 years…. all alone since her poor husband, God rest his soul, passed on. She says, “My son bought me this car a while ago, and I told him it goes faster than my old one. Isn’t that horrible. I’ll tell him to take it back!” Naturally, they let her go. She and her friends find this hilarious and tell rousing stories of how she gets pulled over all the time but she bats her eyelashes at the nice young cops and they wave her on. Yes, being old and seemingly innocent has its perks.
Titine happens to ALWAYS wears lilac. Sonia ALWAYS wears pink. It is funny to see these elderly women all decked out in pastels making their own kind of fashion statement though unyielding single color commitment.
I think it’s remarkable that in a quiet country place like this, three relocated Europeans found each other and sparked a friendship. They meet for tea and talk about British royalty and such. They also like to frequent thrift stores. They love a bargain, not because they need one (for they are all well enough situated) but finding a good deal is a challenge they find entertaining. Sonia doesn’t like thrift stores, however. She misses Target. Every opportunity she gets she complains that the problem with living here is the lack of civilized shopping.
I say, “What do you need?”
“Nothing. But I like to shop everyday anyway.”
Shopping for me is a drag, certainly not entertainment, so I just can’t relate to her misery. I let Diane take over the necessary one hour drive trips to malls and Target to keep her happy. I find different ways to spend my time with my Mother-in-law if possible.
Considering this, I decided it would be nice to invite Sonia and her friends to our house one day for their weekly lunch and yesterday, they came. I wanted to organize a fancy, English Tea, so I set the dining room table with white linen, candles and flowers, and set the table with the English China my mother-in-law gave me when we moved to Georgia- a symbol of family heritage that I didn’t necessarily want, but I do appreciate for its family significance. Sonia has always been an avid English china collector, and she has several complete sets of expensive china. She gave a set to Diane, one to me, and still has several sets at home. Funny, considering you can only eat on one set at a time, and she really never did much entertaining other than the traditional holiday dinners. Ah well, I suppose more than a few people think my interests are impractical too. Anyway, while the china certainly doesn’t fit this rustic cabin house, it makes a very pretty table and I was glad to finally have a reason to use it. Just as I guessed, it impressed the white-haired trio for they felt they were being treated as special guests.
I cooked chicken in a creamy mushroom and broccoli sauce poured over a puffed pastry, like a fancy smancy chicken pot pie. I served this with honey sautéed carrots and rice pilaf, two types of homemade bread (buttermilk and whole wheat cottage cheese bread – sounds weird, but it is earthy and great) and for good measure, threw in some zucchini muffins (because I must cook zucchini every meal, don’t ya know, due the fact that it won’t stop growing and I’m on a quest to use every thing that comes out of that blessed garden.). I diced watermelon and cut fresh lettuce from our garden too for a homegrown fancy salad. First time I’ve used any of our own lettuce- exciting. This meal was served with some local Georgia peach wine, a very fresh luncheon wine (I’m all into buying local now – besides which, I am checking out the competition and setting benchmarks for flavor since I am making wine from produce grown in the same kind of soil as these small vineyards are.) I topped off the meal with a chilled rainbow fruit pie, made from diced fruit in an orange glaze, poured into a homemade crust. And, of course, tea.
The ladies spent three hours at the table, swapping stories and enjoying their leisurely, fancy meal. I learned all about Titine’s style of making wine (she uses fruit varieties or muscadine grapes, which she crushes herself). She told stories of how her mother taught her the craft, and how once she was transporting gallons and gallons in the back of her car in this bible-belt dry county, and of course got stopped by a police officer because she was (naturally) speeding again. She thought she would be arrested but sweet talked her way out of it, feeling like a liquor runner. Ha.
Titine also makes cordials. I showed her my blackberry cordial tucked in a dark cupboard, working its magic. This gained me total approval. She convinced me to try peach cordial next time. Titine makes wine without yeast – don’t quite understand how, despite her lengthy explanation, and she doesn’t measure her ingredients. Considering the highly sensitive nature of wine in the fermenting stage, I was surprised. Can’t wait to try some to see how it differs from the batches I’m make. It was interesting to talk winemaking with someone who has done it for years and years, having learned it in the “old country”.
We talked history and books and cooking and how to best buy a car. And sitting there, watching these elderly faces filled with animation, listening to them share their vast experience and intriguing lives, I was impressed. They are wonderful conversationalists, far better than many people my own age who seem to have lost the fine art of intimate communication, talking more often of the latest movies they’ve seen, or what cell phone gets the best reception – subjects that are far more generic and surface oriented. There is something to be said about growing old, for if we are indeed the sum of our life experience, growing old really is the equivalent of evolving into a more complex, interesting person. A few wrinkles and brittle bones is a small price to pay for a mind swimming in wisdom and personal stories.
I’ve spent a lifetime with kids (which I still adore). Somehow, this makes spending time with the elderly now a poignant and novel experience for me. I really am fascinated by people in the advanced stages of life. In fact, I’m planning to organize a writing class for older people – memoir writing, so they can leave stories behind for their family. I’m talking to the local college about it now. I want to put my degree to good use in a way that gives something back to the art I love. Mostly, I think it will be wonderful for retirees seeking an interesting activity that isn’t physically challenging, and a learning experience for me too, but this is subject for another blog.
Anyway, after lunch, the ladies wanted a tour of the house, so we went from room to room, viewing the house Sonia has told them so much about. We held hands as they maneuvered the big log stairs, and I realized for the first time this is not a house for the feint of body. It occurred to me that we better enjoy it for the next ten or twenty years, because eventually, we will get old and find it cumbersome too. The tour was perfect after-lunch entertainment. These ladies notice details and ask earnest questions. They were curious about how and why Mark did the things he did as he planned and built this home. I suppose people in their 80’s have seen a zillion homes in their day, and they’ve owned more than a few, which helps them appreciate the artistic and original facets of the house. They certainly thought it was beautiful and different.
We’ve had younger friends walk through the house and express appreciation. They whistle under their breath and say, “Nice digs. Cool. Where’s the beer?” But with these women, it was different. They would walk up to the mantle, adjust their glasses and stare up close at the wood work, asking what kind of tree it was made from. They’d make guesses determined by of the grain and color, then shake their head and say, “of course” when Mark revealed the true nature of the wood. They’d ask how long it took, and why he chose one particular design or tree over another. Looking at the geodes in the rock of our fireplace, they’d ask if we’d thought to get some original stone from the copper mines (we live near Copperhill where they had working mines up until the late 70’s and for years, big chunks of natural copper could be found in area stones). We were sorry to say we didn’t think of that, a shame considering the historical significance. But we promised we would try to find some for the fireplace in our new rustic coffee shop/art gallery that we are building, and Titine told us where to go and who to speak to when we were ready to find some. Gee, old people are a walking wealth of information. They pointed out the different crystals saying, “What is that, I’ve forgotten the name.” And Mark would say, “This is amethyst,” or quartz or what have you.
The ladies noticed the turned wood bowls on the mantle and the antler baskets and the furniture Mark has made, and asked about these too. Mark stood about, answering their questions, receiving their heartfelt praise – I don’t suppose he ever never felt so appreciated! They noticed my spinning wheel, and this spurred a conversation about llamas and spinning. They peered into my incubator to see my Peacock eggs and marveled at our “diversity”. They also kept commenting about the windows and how everywhere you looked you saw trees and birds – so serine.
They said, “You have your own estate here! How wonderful for your children!” I thought it particularly sweet that they saw our home not as a “good investment” or a sign of success, as people our age tend to do, but as a precious haven for family rearing. I guess after 80 plus years, you tend to remember what is enduring and important in the big scheme.
The funny thing was, I think this was the first time Mark’s mother really looked at the house closely or saw it as something special. Seeing it through her friend’s eyes made her suddenly see the house as an accomplishment, something remarkable created by her son. She said over and over, “You know, this really IS an amazing house. It’s not as dark as you’d, think being made of wood and all, and the view is nice even though it is just trees.” (Before this, she was always saying, “Why anyone would want to live in a log house the wilderness is beyond me. You could have a pristine condo in Florida right by the beach! I’m sick of trees and mountains. That is all you see around here.”) And we’d say, “Yeah, trees and mountains. Hum-bug. Who’d want to be here instead of Florida, with neighbors living practically on top of you? The problem is, where would we put the donkey?”
She’d give us that, who really needs a donkey? Look.
It was a nice afternoon. It ate up the entire afternoon, true, and I was exhausted by the end, but I know how appreciative Sonia was to be able to show-off to her friends. She is now the gal with the great daughter-in-law, who cooks and is a gracious host, and the son with the amazing building talent etc.. etc.. Laying claim to successful, thoughtful offspring seems to count big in the 80 year old sect.
Mark later thanked me for making the luncheon for his Mother a big deal.
I said, “Anytime. It sure beats spending a day at the mall or driving her 2 hours to Sam’s to stock up on toilet paper (her other favorite pastime).” You see, it is not that I’m such a great daughter-in-law. I’m just maneuvering my way out of doing things I despise – replacing them with something I like doing. Cooking and good conversation is more fun than driving and shopping for un-required things – at least for me. It’s a win-win situation.
I think the most important thing about a day like today, is what it teaches my own children. My son, who was only there for a few minutes before being whisked off to band camp, kept smiling and saying, “I feel like I’m in England having lunch. Grandma must be out of her mind happy about this.” He gave me thumbs up for the meal (having snagged a plateful in the kitchen.) My youngest daughter got all dressed up and joined us at the table, sipping orange soda from her fancy wineglass and delicately eating her lunch. To her, this was nothing more than an exciting grown-up tea party and she was thrilled to participate. She stuck with the conversation for as long as she could hold out, then went off to play, returning a bit later with some of her original poetry to recite. (She is constantly writing poems and they are spectacular). Couldn’t have hired a more perfect, young participant to add flavor to the afternoon. Almost seemed staged, but it wasn’t.
The point is, my children were gracious and polite to these elderly guests. And they witnessed their parents going out of their way to do something nice for older people too, which will be important when I am an old broad wearing the same color everyday and I have friends who need an afternoon’s entertainment. I hope I’m teaching my children how to behave when they become adults – to be caring individuals with patience for the elderly, not so self-involved that they can’t pause once in a while to give time and attention to people who are lonely and not “useful” to their lives in obvious ways. I think it’s important to be the kind of person you want your children to be. And this involves the big stuff, like working hard for what you want and always trying to improve your mind and living an authentic life, but it includes the small stuff too, like being kind to others and pausing your busy life once in a while to do something that doesn’t have any measurable returns for you personally.
It’s the things you bother to make time for, even when they “don’t do it for you”, that often will resonate and impact your existence long after the moment is over. In the end, will any of us close our eyes for the last time remembering all that laundry we did, the great deals we closed at work, the money in we accumulated in the bank, the movies we sat through or the chores we thought were such a priority? While all this feels so important in the moment, it isn’t. I believe what counts is the people we impact, the moments we share, the non-material things we leave behind, even if they are sometimes invisible, subtle influences on the lives of others.
Yesterday, I fell behind on my chores, fed my hungry, ornery horses in the rain later than scheduled, missed my hair appointment (oops) and spent half a day pulling out (and later putting back) a ton of china from awkwardly high, inconvenient shelves, even though I had perfectly good dishes a short reach away that would have sufficed.
And yet, this was all a part of creating what was really a very good day. Nice surprise. And an important lesson to remember.