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.

Monday, April 25, 2016

A Coin From the Tooth Fairy

When I was little I asked my denture-wearing grandfather if he had fallen asleep with his head under the pillow. I thought I was quite clever. Imagine waking up without teeth and a small pile of coins in their place! As you know, teeth under pillows are meant for the fairies.

I still remember putting my own teeth under my pillow, and the wonder and anticipation of what I would find in the morning. I also remember when the magic came to an end. After sleeping on the same tooth for several nights I finally said to my mother, "Here's the tooth, can I have just have my money now."

Then there was the family down the road who's children claimed to receive $10 per tooth, which in the 80s was a substantial sum. I don't know who was more upset at this claim, the neighbourhood children or their parents. Everyone knew that the fairy brought a quarter.

My own children now participate in the tradition. Due to inflation their tooth fairy brings $1, which in Canada is a gold coloured coin affectionately referred to as a Loonie. When my eldest lost her first tooth (by extraction), she misplaced it before she got it home. That started a pen pal relationship with her tooth fairy Dentina, as she had to write a letter explaining why the tooth was not under the pillow.

I swore to myself I would never forget to put the coin under my sleeping child's pillow. And then it happened. Apparently if the fairy forgets, the next night you get double.

Both my children lost teeth in the last week. My daughter lost one first.  She put it under her pillow.  Late that night I realized that I didn't have a loonie. Neither did my spouse.  I had a toonie ($2.00 coin) but my spouse pointed out that if we do it once, the price of teeth will permanently go up. So I searched the house: under the couch cushions, on top of the drier, behind the toilet, until I had a dollar in coins. I put the whole lot in a sandwich bag under her pillow. When she awoke the next morning we could hear her laughing, "The tooth fairy left me a bag of money," she exclaimed. The fun, the laughter;  the world is planted in pennies.

The next day my son lost a tooth. Of course we still didn't have a loonie. So Dentina wrote him a teeny tiny note, "Sorry, Sam but I'm a little short," snort, "I'll bring your coin tomorrow night."

Maybe we should have chosen a different tooth tradition that doesn't require having coins on hand,  such as throwing your tooth on the roof, or burying it by a tree. But in keeping with the theme of the world being planted in pennies, here is another example of where a small coin can be of great value. It can bring a little magic and wonder. It signifies the milestones of growing up and leaving behind, like tiny baby teeth, the little bits of childhood. Perhaps that is why the tradition continues. Once the teeth start to go, you know that the days of innocent wonder are numbered, and a small chip of copper or silver can connect parent and child to the days of magic. I think that the kids know the truth, but they like to play along, and I am kind of dreading the day they say, "Mom, just give me the money."

So that's my two cents on the tooth fairy.  What are your family tooth traditions. A penny for your thoughts?