Tea with Mrs. Tillie Thomas
A true story.
She served her homemade strawberry jam in a petite cut crystal pot, with a tiny crystal lid and a silver spoon. How she ever popped open the jam jar with her 85-year-old hands was anyone’s guess. The tea set was silver. Real silver – polished to an impeccable shine. Our teacups and saucers were fine porcelain and the pretty rose pattern wound itself ‘round the delicate handles. The sugar cubes—like the jam—had their own sparkling crystal pot, with tiny tongs. And there were proper teaspoons. Biscuits were presented on a silver tray veiled with a lace-edged napkin—starched crisp and white—a sister of the neatly folded linens at each place setting.
I didn’t know I was coming for tea, exactly. I had met Mrs. Tillie Thomas a few weeks earlier when I gave a talk on Seniors’ Safety. She introduced herself afterward and told me what a nice young lady I seemed to be. She was kind, and terribly polite; the type to wear a proper hat and gloves on Sunday. I didn’t think much more of it.
Then came the call to ‘do an Assessment’ for how a caregiver or companion might help this lady, Mrs. Tillie Thomas. She had made the call herself and I was requested to go do the Assessment.
The morning of the appointment I dropped off my hubby at his cubicle tech job, like many other mornings. And like many other mornings I cried and cried on my way to work. I had learned not to wear mascara. Too much mess and no time to deal with it. Waterproof was out of the question for my overly-sensitive-contact-lens-cloaked corneas.
I hated my job. Well, it wasn’t a job per se. It was much worse. I was partner in the company providing home healthcare for seniors. I had fallen in love with the idea of helping people live happier, healthier lives. Except, I forgot that I too was included ‘people’ and had much creativity and self-expression that needed to be released in order to be happy myself. I was trapped by my own decisions and desperately wanted out. I loved the concept but the work was not for me. I was angry and plagued with guilt about hating such an honorable job. Day after day I heard myself begging the powers that be to please help me, please, please.
But I couldn’t dwell upon what a huge life mistake I had made, not now – I needed to find this old woman’s apartment and do an Assessment. I checked my bleary eyes in the rearview mirror. With my polyester vest and nametag neatly in place I rang her buzzer.
Mrs. Tillie Thomas’s apartment was old, but immaculately kept, as was she. I placed my shoes carefully to the side, lined up just so, and padded across her gleaming hardwood floor. She directed me to the dining room where the tea service had been lovingly prepared and was waiting patiently in the sunlight.
Mrs. Tillie Thomas’s dining room window faced south and the spring sun poured in, sending colourful rainbows all about the room as the light bounced off pristine crystal decanters and miniature swans on tiny round mirrors. My eyes surveyed the apartment—I could see no need for any cleaning assistance whatsoever. I surveyed her too (or in healthcare, as they say, I assessed her). My 10-second assessment found an old woman, sharp as a tack and limber, sprightly even. There were no signs of medication bottles (as is often the case) and all was in very fine working order indeed. I began to wonder why I had been called.
She motioned for me to please sit down. She poured the tea. I gently placed the pretty napkin on my lap, smoothing it out. I was glad my own mother had instilled in us ‘Queen of England’ manners. Evidently, we were having proper tea and now was the time to employ just such etiquette. In doing my job, it would’ve been standard procedure for me to then pull out my Assessment form and begin with questions. But I didn’t. The steaming tea needed sugar and her strawberry jam was too beautiful, glistening in the sunlight.
I asked about the jam. I learned she still does canning every year. I learned it was probably her Tuesday afternoons at the bowling alley that gave her the grip to pop open the jars. I learned she’d had a daughter, Carol. I learned Mrs. Tillie Thomas had sewn her daughter’s wedding gown herself. She scurried off to the study to fetch some photos. She showed me the wedding pictures and some holiday snapshots. Then I learned what no mother should ever have to bear; I learned that her beautiful daughter had died too young—her life snatched away by illness just as she began a family of her own.
I stared into my teacup and then looked across at Mrs. Tillie Thomas. I saw memories playing out in her watery eyes. Like a mother’s touch, her pain was soft and delicate. It filled the room and rolled down our cheeks, dripping into our long-empty teacups.
Her heart ached for what once was and mine longed for what could be. She lived in a time gone by and I in a time not yet arrived. She grieved for a life lost and I for a life I hadn’t created. And yet betwixt the strawberry jam and snapshots we found peace there, together.
We sat there, quietly, she and I. Lace napkins dabbed our tears away. Two ladies allowing ourselves to just be. We held the space for each other while the last of the tea cooled in its pretty pot.
Images styled and photographed by Hollie with Artpowerhouse.
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