The Lady at the ATM.

 

A cold wet Sunday morning in a Dordogne village. We’d found the Parking and were walking up a footpath towards what we hoped would be some shops. We wanted to buy picnic provisions. Ahead was a woman in black pants and a pale blue parka. She walked steadily up hill, legs a bit apart for balance and shoulders bent. She stopped and searched in her shopping bag and faced the wall.

We caught up with her and stepped out onto the road to pass her. She turned to face us, looked me in the eye and spoke. She was holding a bank card in her right hand and moved it between me and the ATM whilst talking and pleading. Her eyes were a clear blue, her hair, whitey grey and tied back into a sort of bun, and she had a very pleasant smile. She was actually asking us to help her withdraw money. I was shocked at her trust in us.

‘Avez vous quatre nombres?’ I asked, counting out four fingers. ‘PIN number?’ forgetting  that the French call it an identity number, or something like that.

She kept on talking, holding her card towards us, smiling, putting the card towards the slot.

We kept on talking, going on about quatre nombres.

It was getting nowhere.

We had to say, ‘Pardon, Madame,’ and open our hands in a helpless way, and set off up the hill. She smiled a beautiful wide, curved smile, we smiled back and we all sort of bowed to each other.

We turned our backs and continued up the hill. My eyes stung and I burst into tears at her vulnerability and trust. I thought of Mum and wondered if this old woman also had macular degeneration and couldn’t read screens. I thought that she probably usually went into the bank and withdrew money over the counter. Maybe, this  Sunday she had run out of cash. Maybe she was genuinely confused about life. I thought about how hard it was to be old and how much harder if you were alone.

We walked about another block up the road and reached the square and some shops. There on the road was an old man in black, his back and legs curved into an S. His feet were in huge black suede, orthopedic shoes which he lifted barely off the ground, very carefully, one slow step after another. It took a long time for him to cross the road on a diagonal towards the bakery. Another old person finding an ordinary errand huge.

We bought some bread, found a green grocer and had just finished up when the door rang open and in came the lady from the bank. ‘Bonjour m’sieur et m’dame’ all round, for and from everyone and a very big smile for us as we left the shop.  That felt a bit better.

 

My Mother’s Bread Board

 

Breadboard top

 

We have a new bread board at our house.

It’s smaller than a sheet of A4 paper. It has curved edges and a raised rectangular surface for cutting. This surface, crisscrossed by knife marks, has been worn through on the long edges to erode a hollow. A deep split carries through to the underside which is marked by the tree rings of the pine from which it has been cut. This side is even more concave.

Breadboard Growth Rings

I was holding the board as I made my initial notes and thought tenderly of its long life and the kitchens it has worked in.

I think I remember this board being present for all of my life. It was always in the kitchen of 25 Church Street, Eaglehawk, Victoria, Australia, The World, The Universe where I grew up. When clean and dry, it leant next to a larger round board tucked beside the bread bin. As a child, I remember being told to turn it over if I wanted to chop tomatoes or anything other than bread. “We don’t want the bread to smell of onions.” I think you were allowed to chop butter for pastry on the top bread side.

What a lot of meals it has been involved in! There were six of us, and sometimes seven, when Dad’s father came to live with us. We always had three vegetables, white, green and yellow, served with whatever meat it was. I now remember the vegetable knife: small, fiercely sharp and with a painted red handle. No wonder the chopping side wore thin and hollow.

When Mum, aged 86, moved bravely from her home of nearly sixty years to her unit at Donvale Retirement Village in Melbourne’s outer east, the bread board came with her. Here, they settled into a new kitchen with wide benches, a noisy fan forced oven and the wonders of a double sink. Instead of being washed up in a single sink facing a wall, now the board could be washed and rinsed and sit in a dish rack in the afternoon sun facing a gravel courtyard and a bank planted up with diosma, grevillea, westringea and agapanthus. For years, since the advent of sliced bread, it had become mostly a chopping board. However, her lunchtime sandwich would still be made on the top. Gradually the board did even less work when Mum increasingly ate bought frozen meals as her sight and energy faded.

By the time she was 92, she was getting very tired managing on her own, even with a lot of carers coming in to help, so the painful decision was made to move into supported care where she would be safe and looked after. This time, her world contracted to a single room which she furnished with her special cedar chest of drawers, her very comfortable reclining chair and some pictures.

Again, I had to clear her house. Such of a lot of it was my life too because what she had brought from Eaglehawk was a crystallization of what was important to her and most of that was very familiar to me. I found that there were items that I could quite easily put in the skip as rubbish, even though I didn’t want to think about that too much, then there were better items that were clearly suitable for the Salvation Army. Last, there were the items that swiftly brought pangs into my heart and painful tears to my eyes. The breadboard was one of these.

It lives with us now in our flat which we moved into at about much the same time as Mum moved from Eaglehawk. I like to use it, even though it rattles and wobbles on our hard benches. Its lineage stretches back to those childhood Eaglehawk days and the memories of food and eating in that big, family kitchen looking onto the grevillea bush with honeyeaters hopping around inside it.

Concave

The board has worn and hollowed, as has my mother in her increasing frailty. But it has endured, still displaying its original growth rings. My mother’s brave inner spirit lives on in her worn old body generating respect for the strength and endurance of age. This thin old chopping board reveals the work and nourishing of a lifetime.