Thursday, April 28, 2016

Tea and Empathy: A Eulogy for Helga

This is the story I should have written years ago.  When Helga passed away I wanted to share this with David. I never did and they are both gone now. Anyone who had the privilege of knowing them knows that they taught so much more than cultural studies, Spanish or Latin. I still think of them often and the impact they had on my life. So, as a tribute I'd like to share this story.  It happened more than twenty years ago in an old New Brunswick kitchen...

 I sat as straight as possible, my spine aligned with the back of the hard wooden kitchen chair. My friend Joanne and I exchanged nervous glances across the table as we anxiously surveyed the house that could potentially be our home for the summer. Helga, my Latin professor, had invited us to tea to discuss the potential of a house-sitting arrangement during the school break.  She was a stern school-marm type, with as much love, wisdom packed into her compact frame as there was efficiency and diligence. The home that she shared with her husband and fellow professor was a beautiful century home with large bay windows watching over a quaint street in a small New Brunswick town. It was furnished with antiques, an upright grand piano which was the centerpiece of a formal sitting room, and everywhere were artifacts of a long life of love and travel.
A china plate of butter cookies sat in the middle of the table. Helga poured tea and I noted that although the teacups were lovely, they did not match.
“Helga, your teacups are really pretty,” I commented, to break the tension and ease into conversation.
“Why thank you. They are all each very special. This one was a wedding gift from David,” she gestured toward the cup and saucer with small purple flowers in front of me that had to be at least forty years old. “Yours  was a gift to celebrate my first teaching job,” she said directing her attention to Joanne’s cup with the pale, butter-yellow daffodils. “And mine was a gift from my schatzie  on our very first date.” The evocation of the pet name for her husband brought a mist of reminiscence to her eyes as she lovingly traced her finger around the delicate pink roses, the dainty handle like a silver stem in her strong German hand. She quickly shook it off and abruptly said, “Now kiddos, down to business.”
The next half hour was filled with the expectations of the house-sitting arrangement should we be chosen. We would bring in and sort the mail. The house would be tidy. Yard work was not our concern as there would be a hired man to deal with that type of maintenance. Finally, we would each be expected to pay rent. She didn’t want any “freeloaders” as she called them. For a moment we were afraid that maybe we wouldn’t have a place to stay after all, until she explained quite sternly that we would each need to pay $20.00 per month. Even with my minimum wage job paying only $5.00 an hour, the amount was negligible and Joanne shared a quick look of relief and hope.
“I’ll let you know what we decide,” Helga concluded, signifying that the meeting had come to an end. Eager to make a good impression, I offered to wash the dishes and Joanne jumped up to help. Helga accepted the help with thanks and a satisfied nod. I filled the sink with warm soapy water   as Joanne cleared the table. I carefully washed each dish, placing it in the drying rack in the second sink. I was washing the cup adorned with pink roses, her gift from David, when the handle fell off in my hand. I held the teacup in the right hand, the delicate silver handle in the left, like the horn of a glass unicorn, unique in all the world and broken beyond all repair. The feeling of dread spread from my hands, up my arms, to my heart and down to my knees. “Helga,” I managed to speak my body shaking, nausea setting in, my head spinning, “I’m so sorry, I...I...broke a teacup.” I had ruined not only a precious object, but my chances of being able to stay and work in the town that I loved, in a beautiful house on a quaint New Brunswick street...
“That old thing, think nothing of it.”
“But...but, Helga,” I stammered, “It’s the cup that David gave you… on your first date!” The tears that had been welling up in my worried hazel eyes began to flow in earnest, hotter than the dishwater in the sink before me.
“Don’t worry, it was probably cracked already ; it’s just an old teacup,” she emphasized once again.
“And girls,” she added, “You can have the house.”
I don’t know if Helga cried after we left. I imagine that she did. I don’t know if she tried to glue it back together. I imagine that she would. The one thing I do know that as a young lady, I broke an old lady’s teacup, and that even if it broke her heart, she would never let it break the girl.

1 comment:

  1. De nuevo una buena historia. Que vive la caja azul