Monday, 6 January 2014

"I can manage, thank you" ~ Edith's story

Maggie Phelan, a relative of mine, sent me this story.  I enjoyed it so much that I made an unprecedented offer to publish it here so that it could be shared further.  I am delighted to introduce her and her fine piece of writing.  

It is a true story about an elderly neighbour in an eastern suburb of Christchurch, an area I know well.  I am sure you will be pleased to meet Edith, through the lines of this story, as well as Maggie.

Edith is nearly one hundred.

She jumps up, startled at our arrival.  The door was already open to allow the cool air into her tiny cottage.  It is a moment of fright for the old woman, but only a moment.  My son and I are relieved she’s at ease with our entry.

By the time her small frame is once again at her card table, and the cards are slapped down, sharp, we see that smile broad across her face.  In her welcome there’s also instruction to place new batteries in the old transistor radio. 

This is an exciting year.  Just two months to go before the big day.

The batteries are in.  We look outside now as my son takes an ancient leaf rake and begins to clear the magnolia leaves that have scattered onto her front lawn.  
“Those flowers look beautiful beside the fence Edith,” I say.

This statement is loudly given.  I have pretence that her hearing is as sharp as the colour we see before us.  “Yes dear, my mother used to say the geraniums were a gift from God.”  She adds, “They grow anywhere!  Even in a desert.” 
 We both laugh.  “It’s hot enough out there today, I see you’re all dressed up.  Off out?” I ask.

“I’m being picked up,” she says.  “Down to the RSA.  By the time I get home, I’ll be straight off to bed.  But I may win a bit on the raffles tonight.”  
She is confused.  I remind her that today is Sunday, not Thursday – her normal Housie night.

She takes off her shoes, and puts on well-worn slippers.  I see she still refuses to wear the new ones bought on her previous birthday.  Still, she may just wear them this winter.  I ask her about the upcoming date.

“When we celebrate this birthday of yours, do you mind if people ask questions?”

“No!” she answers quickly, “I won’t be bothered with that.”

“I mean, people may ask, what... has helped you live this long life?”

“Gods-truth, I’ve no idea!” she laughs out loudly.  “First thing I say, when I awake each morning, 'I’m in perfect health as God wishes me to be’ ...and that’s all!  Maybe I will tell them that when I was born, way too early, they could fit me in a pint-jug!” 
 I have heard this many times before and still wonder if it is true.  These stories.

We sit in silence a while, watching as outside my son now bends down to gather up the brown pile of tough dead leaves from the enormous tree. 
I remember when it was planted, and the children that have climbed its branches. My family lives the other side of the tree.

Each year the yellow plums are removed from both Edith’s narrow path and from our side of the battered tin fence, with the stark rust growing in places.

“I know it’s hard to believe really, I mean, me being born at seven and a half months in convulsions, and not being able to feed,” she says.

“But I’ve only been sick twice!  Once, when I was ten I had scarlet fever.  And I had the mumps, that was when the war was ending.”

She has been thinking of the answer she would give to people about her longevity, but her mind then slips closer, only ten years past, when we found her tired, almost worn to the core: 

“You know I saw her recently at the RSA.  You forgive people, but I found it difficult,” she says.  “She kept getting up as if to come over to see me, then sitting back down again.  In the end she came over...”

Edith’s concentrating now, trying to ensure the details are right.  “She asked how I was doing and I think I replied very quickly, 
'I’m fine! thank you very much’. 
 I could tell she was going to add something else.  I think it was my curt reply that made her leave.”

We remember our anger at people she’d come to trust, her gardener and his mother.

The mother knew.  She just didn’t admit it, probably not even to herself.  And Edith now had to see her at the RSA.

“How was I doing indeed!” she says.  “It was her son.  Had she forgotten about him?”

I remember the things stolen, vases and other treasures.  I thought at the time to ask if she’d been giving them away, or maybe selling them.  But it seemed an affront, I don’t quite know why.

We thought it would be the end of her, as frail as she was.  It had been going on for months, perhaps years, only coming to light when the gardener had tried it on with Edith’s friends.  And I see why, now of all times, she’d thought of this woman, and the price the woman’s son had almost taken.

She gets up as my son enters and takes back the rake.  In her worn track-pants her body has become as twigs on bare trees.  Yet she still moves with both elegance and speed.

I nod thanks to my son and then watch as Edith marches out with the tool to her back shed, slamming the back door shut, turning the key.

She pauses at her small bench and gathers up other treasures. 
“You choose, which bar?” she says. The chocolate in her hands the same for me as it is for my sons.

“Better take one for your husband too,” she adds laughing, “He might get jealous!  You remind him it keeps you healthy.”


She’s one hundred years old.

The celebrations for it flew by.  Her excitement with all the fuss made was a precious thing to watch. 

“A card from the Queen, and the Prime Minister.  And two parties!  Now fancy that, two parties!”

She has one with the RSA and one with her friends and cousins from up north. 

I’m there for the latter.  She cuts in like it was her first and only cake, with force and precision and a wicked smile.  Photographs are snapped of her joy at the fuss and she walks the room and speaks to everyone. 

A mate of Edith’s leans against the bar, echoing common sentiment that night.  “Sharp as a tack, she is,” he says.  “She still has that spirit of life alright.  Just look at how smart she looks.”  He raises his voice, “Just you come over here Edith and have another photo!”

Later she reminds me, once again, of when she couldn’t attend a birthday party.

“My dad, he had me sit outside on the doorstep and watch all the children arrive next door to that birthday party.  I had been naughty, and I had to take her in the gift and then just leave.  I didn’t even get the cake.”  She rests back in the chair.

“I can’t remember now what I had done.  But oh! he was so strict.”

With the photos from the one hundredth party on the table in front of her Edith’s smile returns.  “I’ve been so spoilt now though, just look at it all.”

Then she slips back into her past and I’m alone in the room.  The cards continue to slap down though and, as she begins another game, I bring her back, asking how she keeps track of the game.

“Look, I mark them off,” she says, pointing to a battered notebook.

“It’s good, if I have to wait to be picked up.  I always like to be prepared, to be on time.  So I play my cards and stay relaxed,” she says.  Edith knows nineteen different games of patience.

While the game continues I slip into her bedroom and begin to make her bed. 
I can tell it is due – there are many bed socks at the end of the bed. 
 All crumbled soft, all pastel colours.  But she won’t let me take them home to wash. I tuck two pair in with the sheets and will have them delivered back the next day.

She also refuses my offer to place other items into the bag.  As I enter her lounge again I notice her clean underwear on top of the heater.  It is then I realize the odor.  Will my sense of smell also fade?

“You know dear, I remember a dolls house, once for a birthday, all opened up at one side.  It was very pretty,” she says.  I finish tidying up the sheets and wander back to the table.

“I came over here after my husband died.  He couldn’t stand the nor-westerlies, bad headaches you know.  Where is that dolls house?  I had to abandon so much.  All cleared out,” she says.  Edith’s sense of smell may be gone, but her memory can drift over years like seconds.

I came over the hill to take care of my mother. I still remember the day your husband came over with all those Easter buns.  He was only twelve, all those children lined up and Doris, his Mum, offering us those home-made buns,” she says.

“Now fancy that, all those years and he has raised his own two boys.  Amos, has he left home yet?  Has he found a nice young girl?”

“Not yet Edith, I think he is just too busy with his music and working, and running!” I reply, standing in for my youngest son.

“I guess he may have to just travel, go overseas and find himself a wife.” 

A number of times she has actually said those words to Amos, and he always manages to reply with an expression as if it is the first he’s heard of it. 

I notice that beside her cards her diary is open, her dramatically sloping handwriting matched with specific dates. Each date has a circle around it, a reminder of friend’s birthdays like a hug on page.

My son’s name is there and I know she’ll soon have prepared an envelope with a note inside to celebrate.


She is one hundred and one.

The neighbours discuss the likelihood of her outlasting her house.  Her hearing is hard, yet, as she bends over to place tired sheets into a plastic bag, she shows no sign of slowing down.

“I will just go and get those boxes,” she says.  A small ritual for my work at the kindergarten.  “I like to help out you know.  If the children can make things, and I don’t mind cutting up these wee pictures.”

Each week small bundles have been collected.  I notice she has cut out the crosswords for her cousin, another pile next to the pictures for the children.  Her collections have become like the cobwebs, gathering in corners.  I am relieved that she has finally agreed to accept home help.

When she turns 101 Edith comes to the kindergarten.  The children sing for her.  A song about the simple joy of life.  I had written it while on the road back from the west coast, hummed into the sweet air of spring, the words gradually falling alongside each other.

`Our time on this planet’, it begins.  With a ukulele to keep the tune, the children, even off key slightly, still make it sound breathtaking and vivid – ‘
as those mountains to the sea, to the life on the estuary’. 

She has a dreamy look upon her face.  Unexpectedly smiling, she looks around this sea of children, who look back in awe at how old she is, and how tiny she has become.  And they too are affected by her grin and smile back.  One child comes forward and asks if she likes the song.  
I wonder if she has heard any of these words sung in her honour. 

She nods and pats the child’s arm. 
“Yes!  Just lovely.”  Then she eagerly accepts a large slice of chocolate cake and cup of tea. 

The cake was baked by another neighbour, one whose own children had climbed that big tree, had grown up with Edith as the old lady next door who always remembered their birthdays with a card and a coin.  These children too had slipped past childhood and moved away, to return for the back-yard parties and have questions asked of their lives.

Visiting the children at the kindy was not without some distress for Edith.  Back home, winding down, she begins to talk again of her own children.

“You just can’t imagine what they would look like now!  How tall?  Would she still have fair hair? What would he have taken up? 
 You can’t dwell on it, but sometimes I wonder,” she says.

I am near to tears as I make her cup of tea.  How I would I have coped?  What would I have become with both my children dying at young ages?  I am amazed that, while she could have turned bitter and angry, she still each day blesses her time on this planet. 


Edith is one hundred and two. 

The winter has been bitter.  She comments regularly that each day is just the same.  The bed-socks are counted at the bottom of the bed, the smell of stale air inescapable. 

Cards are once again pattered onto the table, a romantic novel nearby, ready.

The photographs that were taken for her 100th are now framed with the soft edge of a cobweb. 
 She refuses to allow me to tackle any more cleaning.  The girl will be here on Tuesday.

“Just run along and see those grandchildren, and don’t forget the bag of boxes for the Kindy,” she says.

I decide to ignore this.  Removing her boxes from the soft orange chair I sit down beside her.  
She tells me she looks forward to the spring.  I tell her I look forward to the scent of her geraniums.  I hold her hand a while and listen to another story from her childhood. 


September changes everything.

I wake during the earthquake.  We find out later it is 7.1, although at the time there is no significance to these numbers, or the many that follow. 
 I am half way down the stairs, holding tightly to the banister as the violence continues.  I glance up.

My husband is looking out the top window - it’s a bewildering sight.  As I wonder what is going through his mind, my thoughts cross over to Edith in her wee cottage.  The quaking still continues and the noise is cruel and hard. 

Our house remains.  We are safe and the beautiful brick wall standing next to our dining room window tells us that Edith’s house also stands.  
In my dressing gown, I pound on her door.  
“I’m coming, I’m coming,”
 I hear.

The lock turns and I can then hug her small frame.  While I feared the worst, to now see her before me, it’s like she is unnerved by this incredible violence.

She is beginning, like me, to make sense of what has happened. 
 Then the aftershocks begin.  A cup rattles and her floor is moving like it is on a wave, the photos rocking side to side. 

“You’ll have to move in with us,” I say, “for as long as you like.”

Edith is forthright in her answer.  
“I’ve been on my own for a long time and I’ll not be leaving my home.  I’ll just get dressed and start the day.”  That was her signal for me to leave.

Over my visits that day I see she feels most safe by going about her normal routines.  
The next day I pop thick vegetable soup into her small pot and do a more thorough check of the house.  It appears to have stood up to the pounding.

Elsewhere it is chaos however.  
The water main bursts out onto our small street.  Firefighters arrive and everyone gathers on the footpath to watch an unfortunate house get battered, this time water smashing under its eaves, flooding the inside.  Edith does not stay long with me out there.

“I don’t like the fire engines,” she says in a quiet voice.

When I have her seated inside again she tells me why.  It’s a story that does not come with a lesson learned, or a happy ending.  Instead, with the finality of her story, I see a frailty appear in Edith.  The shock is entering her mind again and with it come stories of dismay from the past century.

The ongoing aftershocks have moved the brick walls and the fire service want her out.  It is explained to her that the entire house could collapse in.  Yet she is determined to stay.  As always, she’s very polite, simply saying, “I’ll be fine, thank you very much.”

Over the course of an afternoon she repeats it, never appearing to tire of the simple refrain.  Meanwhile, her doctor can’t track down any extended family.  And the `home-help' joins the team to convince her it may be just for a while, until they fix the walls. 

Finally, it is my husbands deep, serious tone that gets through.  “You don’t want these firefighters to feel responsible should any harm come to you!” he says.

Things are packed.  Her great maroon coat, slippers, nighty and bedsocks, a battered and worn pack of cards and notebooks, chocolates and purse.  Then she is ready – striding to the waiting car with relaxed purpose, like it is just another outing. 

At the rest home the warmth of the staff heartens me.  Edith is tucked into a bed with the blanket and her own pillow. As I sit watching her breathe as she sleeps it is not long before I too fall asleep, exhausted from everything.

Like the aftershocks her life settles down to a different rhythm as the days pass.  She has become the angel of the nursing home apparently.  As I visit after my day at work, she asks me of my day and she tells me of the things that amuse her, repeating stories over and over.

“Some of these people in here, they expect to be waited on hand and foot,” she says.

“My mother told me that when she was in hospital a lady would drop her napkin on the floor just to get the nurses to pick it up.  It isn’t easy looking after all these old people and it doesn’t hurt to use your manners does it,” says Edith. 

“Well!  We are all the same in here you know. 
 Yes!  We are all the same.  I remember the prisoners.  They would be walking along shackled together, marching along to build the road up there.  When they were doing the walls they were unchained.  And I was allowed to carry a small basket of scones that mother had made.”

“I always wondered what they did, you know, to get chained like that.  They were people too,” she says.  “They always said thank you.”


There has been another, much stronger and closer earthquake.  This time when I’m with her I have my own story to tell.  I hug her.

She sits in an armchair, a cup of tea at her side.  I explain that I am going away for a while.  Edith is going away as well.  The rest home is damaged beyond repair.  A person has been killed under a huge rock that has fallen from the nearby cliff edge.

This time the quake has taken many lives.  Over the hill her hometown is so badly broken it will take years to repair.  The wall made by the prisoners is gone.

She is unaware that much of this has happened, the level of death and destruction, that her cottage will soon have to be torn down.  But she knows she must be moved to another city.

I am then away, far away from my home, far away from my country.  My home is repairable, my husband, boys and grandchildren are safe and I am with close family, who care for my stuttering voice and weary body.

On the way to the airport I had visited Edith.  I passed my workplace that, with its beautiful environment and singing children, seemed like a second home.  The children here had more than once entertained the elderly lady, and stared at her dignity and her wrinkled, smiling face.

The door to my own memory has been unhinged by the shuddering.  It does not open as easily as it once did.  But I do remember her voice and she tells me as I leave.

“Don’t you worry about me, look, I have my tea!  I’ll see you again soon,” she said.


Edith was one hundred and three. 

I hear on Skype.  My husband tells me that Edith died peacefully in her sleep, after being happy and content to share her birthday with new friends.  Despite this I cannot stop weeping. 

Her house did not outlive her after all.  It collapsed with one strong blow to the side.

I remember her bony fingers in that last hold, and as I hug her that last time and hear her breath, I remember her blessing.

“I am in perfect health, as God wishes me to be!” she said.  She used to say it each day upon waking.

Now I hear it inside of me.

I smile at our versions of God, the thread that keeps us attached to this world.  Edith was always ready to observe and hear of this world, to see beauty in its nature. 

“I don’t actually believe in a real god,” she would say.  “It’s just a comfort word.  The people at the pa round the road had it right, you know!” 

She had an easy sense of self, and humbleness, and humour.  I never did find out what the people at the pa had right, but I can remember her chuckle as she relayed the words.

I am home again.  From my dining room window I look out on rubble. 
 I see the bath she refused to use in later years.  She laughed as she told me about the day ‘they’ came to assess her health.

“I jumped into it as though I did it every day, and out again,” she said.

And we both giggled like young school children.  Edith’s little white lie confirmed she was capable of looking after herself.

The geraniums still bloom.  A year since the big quake and the days are settling.  But you never can tell.  Now there is a hole in the fence large enough to fit a wheelbarrow through. Her section is filled with potatoes growing, and corn, beans, peas and pumpkin. 

As I dig up the crops I find smashed bits of fine cups, left over from when the rubble was removed. The food will go in bags to her friends, providing a good feed on Christmas day.  It will be the first of many Christmases without her.

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Kylie Thom said...

That was beautiful. Thank you.


Leigh Christina Russell said...

Thanks Kylie, and nice to hear from you.