Driving home on the school run last week, I spot an elderly woman pruning her rhododendrons . I know her now as Joan. Some months ago, Joan held a plant sale in her garden . I bought a forget-me-not clipping rehoused in a small pot. I didn’t forget her or a remark she’d made to us then. As well as the plants there were teas, coffees, cakes and homemade lemonade for sale. Myself and family sat at one of 6 tables while elderly waitresses took our orders. Joan moved between the tables engaging her guests in conversation. She had a good opener for our kids “Children, do you know what this is?” She offered up a rusty old horseshoe for inspection and went on to tell us that her property was once a foundry and she’d uncovered the horseshoe when she was planting. Her husband is long since deceased. I am guessing that Joan is 90 or thereabouts.
She gave us a little tour of her garden, pointing out her pond and identifying various shrubs, trees, plants and flowers. I appreciate a pretty garden but don’t need to de-construct it. I was far more interested in learning about Joan. But this wasn’t the time. There were others waiting to be shown around and lemonade orders to take. I did ask about a ‘hole’ in her front hedge. She said she had it cut out herself to resemble a window and she likes to look out when she’s in her garden. Then a throwaway comment that I caught and sat on since “I might go 4 days without speaking to anyone”.
Last Friday, when I fleetingly caught a glimpse of her through the hedge window, I put my foot on the brake pedal and parked on the road by her gate. I waited until she spotted me and made my introduction. She didn’t remember me but she recalled the plant sale and offered to give me my choice of clipping to take away if I wanted. I suggested we do a swap and promised to bring some home baking in exchange for the cutting.
Yesterday I placed a couple of my butterfly buns in a pretty muffin box and knocked on her door. I was aware of her vulnerability, of any elderly person’s. I left my calling until 10.30. Maybe she slept in the mornings but then again maybe she was up at dawn. She looked very industrious dressed in a housecoat. People don’t wear them so much anymore. She remembered that she’d promised me a plant so after very graciously accepting my buns ‘ you clever girl’, she took me through to her garden. With secateurs in hand “Tell me what you need?” Well, a Horticultural tutorial for starters. She was bound to call my bluff. I have mostly lawn and have difficulty telling weed from wonder. She enticed me with her pineapple mint plant and her bay tree, reaching up to leafy branches, then snapping them in between her fingers. She suggested I stick the Rosemary sprigs she’d cut me in the soil and watch them take root. The exchange complete I took my leave. I had expected tea but it wasn’t on offer yesterday. She probably has a daily routine that doesn’t budge for anyone and doesn’t include elevenses. She asked for my details and spelling my name perfectly (she gave me the French inflections) she scrawled into a notebook by her phone.
She mentioned a shop she’d been to in the town and I asked her how she’d gotten there. “By bus”. She had my number now so I said to call me if she wants a lift next time.
Later when I recounted my morning to a wise pal she scolded me over my presumption that Joan needed help shopping. “Don’t do it! Don’t take that away from her. That keeps her mind and body active. You’d be doing her a disservice. When she can no longer do it, then you help. Not before”.
She’s right. The visit didn’t go as I had expected. But that’s not to say it wasn’t a good visit. I had been so busy trying to find a time to pop in, squeezing it between two other social meetups that I hadn’t factored in Joan’s schedule and in a way she gave me short shift. Which was good. She had a friend coming to stay on Thursday night so she was preparing for that. She’s all her plants to tend to, maybe even a bus/shop expedition. Reflecting I can see that she didn’t have time for idle chat, as pleasant as that might be, over tea and cakes. Her generation of women fought in wars and toiled in factories, they aren’t ones for coffee cliques . Though she did take my number and said she would call me – “when things quieten down.” It might be next week or it might be in a couple of years. And that’s fine too.