I had a nice afternoon tea with an eighty-six year old woman named Mary after work today. I was heading down Marylebone High Street towards the ATM to top up my phone when I spotted an elderly woman in a straw hat with a purple bow to match her flowered print dress and lilac cardigan. Resting on her green flowered walking cane while clutching her ivory purse close to her chest, she was looking a bit bewildered. Just as I was about to see if she needed assistance, her eyes caught mine and she waved me over and arm in arm we crossed the street together. We continued on to the ATM where she was also heading to get some money for tea and a cab home.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this spunky old woman. She was ever so grateful and after I helped her to the ATM, she insisted that we share a tea at a cafe together. It was the image in your mind of the ultimate ‘good deed’: helping the old lady cross the street. But it felt so different to actually be doing it. I looked at her with a little skepticism, wondering where she had come from and why she was out on her own, struggling in such a bustling city.
She was visiting her grand-daughters, who are my age, living near Regents Park. She lives in West Sussex, alone, widowed twelve years. She began singing an old tune when the waitress came out to take our order. While we were at the ATM she said she felt like she was an alien; everyone was looking at her funny. That she was the only old person out on the street, ‘where are all the old people’ she asked? It was true, she seemed to be the only of her kind. We chatted about her daughter and grand-daughters. How her daughter told her to leave all of her jewellery at home ‘because you never can be safe enough in London’. And how her grand-daughters worked all day and then went out for wine in the evening so that she was all couped up in their apartment until 8 in the evening. How they thought she would be content with the television and garden to keep her company.
She looked at me from across the table and smiled. ‘I’m quite brave, actually. To come out here on my own in this big city where everyone is going so fast. But I just couldn’t help it. I wanted to get out and see things.’ She made me think of myself leaving Michigan because ‘I wanted to get out and see the world.’ I smiled at her. I didn’t really know what to say to her as we sat enjoying our tea in the afternoon sun. She told me of times when she and her husband came into London from the country over thirty years ago. Where they used to go. How much a pot of tea cost back then; three shillings. She then went on to explain that one five pence is a shilling and how all the money changed from shillings to pence and pounds in 1970. It was fascinating, imagining her in London with her husband before I was even born.
We discussed Toni and Guy and how she was going to get a new modern hair style to surprise her grand-daughters after her big day out. As it was, we took a walk to the Cath Kidston shop because she insisted on buying me a thank you gift for helping her. It was fun walking through the shop with her as she searched for something that was to represent the memory of her as well as something useful. She settled on two lovely mugs that I could share with a friend over for tea. I insisted, of course, that no gift was needed, as how could I forget such a lovely lady and such a chance encounter? I never go down Marylebone High Street after work; I had just needed to put credit on my phone to check a message. I had even left early from work. Mary said that I was a blessing, and we were put into each other’s paths. As I listened to her and watched her smile and felt her enthusiasm for life, still at eighty-six, I felt like she was the blessing. Opening me up to humanity I haven’t seen, or felt, in a long time.
It was amazing to share such a human moment with a stranger. To walk across the street together. To share tea together. To do a little shopping together. We would have even headed to the hairdresser together had she not had a slight coughing fit as we began to cross the street again. So, instead, she kissed my cheek goodbye, and we squeezed each other’s hands tightly as she climbed slowly into the black cab. I walked away smiling with a renewed faith in humanity.