The Old Lady
Written by Daniela Bücheler-Scott
07 August 2014
My head hurts. I have been sitting at Coles’ cafe far too long.
My decaf cappuccino has gone cold. The chocolatey froth all but disappeared. Every now and then I allow myself a break in my reading - my anthropology study for the week, and I scan my surroundings.
Shoppers are everywhere. They come in all shapes and sizes and I am reminded that people watching is one of the great pleasures in life. Surveying them and being in this moment in this place of busyness allows me to somehow detach from my self and observe the scene.
I allow my eyes to zoom out from where I'm sitting to the very far reaches of the store and its 20 plus isles and back again. Suddenly I feel serene.
I take in the hum of fridges and voices, Adele’s Turning Tables coming from the loudspeakers, the over-eager staccato sounds of Eftpos printers, the vast displays of fruit and vegetables, the comings and goings of individuals going about their ho hum lives, left here, straight ahead and dancing round the fruit displays.
One can imagine this scene to be chaotic - with people, food, deliveries, ideas, memories, wonderings, regrets and urges everywhere. I am reminded of the quote preceding the movie I watched last night: "Chaos is order yet undeciphered". But there is no chaos here. Somehow, it all seems to work.
Everything connects smoothly. These people all move with purpose, every one is unique with their own story to go with it and somehow it all seems interlinked, moving along one giant-sized narrative. Every moment seems necessary in order to move along to the next link in some invisible chain of events.
What is for me to decipher is this: Where do I fit in this story? Why do I study what I study? Why, indeed, do I want to be a writer? I wake up every day, with the overwhelming urge to write, not necessarily knowing why, but somehow I know I have to in order to feel fulfilled. It fills a void. Why is there a void? I don’t know, yet. I just know I am part of the plot, somewhere along the chain.
As I refocus and bring myself back to the large rustic wooden table before me with the odd little fake lavender pot plant in the middle, I barely notice the elderly lady who has sat down diagonally opposite me. She is reading her newspaper.
We make no eye contact, and why would we? She must be about eighty years old and looks all prim and proper. Just a boring old lady, I think to myself. Old people have never interested me, and generally, I don’t like them. They are usually grumpy old men or sour women, who can’t be bothered anymore with us young folks.
I haven’t had a good experience with the older generation. When I was a teenager, my Austrian maternal grandmother - as she lay sick in hospital, cancer wrecking havoc from within and with fluid on the lungs, all puffy and her body bruised from the inside like a heavily pregnant woman whose foetus constantly kicks - commanded,
"Hab niemals Kinder!", "Never have any children!"
"Warum denn nicht, Oma?", "Why not, grandma?" , I inquired timidly, shocked at that statement, the chill in her voice striking me like a wand filled with ice.
"Weil sie für nichts gut sind." "Because they are good for nothing", was her only response.
These words remain imprinted on my mind, along with a memory of her lack of showing any kind of tenderness towards her family.
Her husband mostly only feigned interest in my life, usually cutting me off half way then talking about himself, as if I was not even present.
My paternal grandparents weren’t much better. In fact, up to the day my German grandmother passed away amidst a cloud of dementia, she still proclaimed her love for Hitler. "Vergiß nicht daß Deutschland durch Hitler aus der Wirtschaftskrise gehoben wurde und allen Arbeit gab," she would say. "Remember that Germany was lifted out of the economic crisis by Hitler and that he gave people jobs."
How I always hoped that with the passing of their generation all the old-fashioned values would also perish. That with the passing of old people younger generations may be more appreciated for who they are and what they have created to be their reality and not who they should be, according to the more mature generation.
What is my reality and what do I believe in? I ask myself. Unwilling to delve so deeply, I return to my reading for a few more chapters, startled by the relevance of the words in the article before me on "Self, Identity, and the Search for Ontological Security".
I am not completely surprised, however, somehow I have always deterministically believed in ‘Everything happens for a reason’.
Again, the boring old lady across from me interrupts my study. Why is she there? Couldn’t she have chosen another table? The movements of people around me merely blur past my peripheral vision, but this old lady is seriously starting to annoy me.
Yet, somehow, I feel drawn to her. What is she doing making these funny facial expressions and mutterings as she is reading the paper? It’s as if she is communicating with it.
‘What in the world…?’, she mutters, frowning at the page, shaking her head. ‘How can they let this happen? … Good Lord!... Tsk tsk tsk!’. Then, viewing another page, a smile spreads over her entire face, making her appear younger than she is.
Again, muttering to herself, this time she approves of the article. ‘Oh that’s nice, hopefully they can keep this up’, escapes her lips ever so gently. I try not to look at her too closely, but somehow I can’t help my voyeuristic tendency.
Even though I really don’t want anything to do with her (she is old and what could she possibly add to my life story?), I secretly start making a list of her appearance.
Silver suit jacket and matching silver silk scarf (boooring).
White (age-appropriate) blouse.
Oval-shaped glasses making her brown eyes appear larger (yeah, whatever).
Smooth skin with surprisingly little lines, for her age (obviously well-off).
Hair-salon-styled, full set of hair (can’t decide color, don’t want to llook up that high, she might notice).
That should be enough time spent on this person, but my imagination takes me to another level. As she sits alone, perhaps she is widowed, or perhaps she divorced a long time ago. Her children, if she has any, are possibly married and spread all over the world. I can see her sitting on an aeroplane, politely ordering, ‘Could I have a cup of tea please’, and ‘would you kindly tell me when we might land at Heathrow?’ I wonder if she is a religious person, perhaps Anglican, definitely not New Age.
This delivers me back to my thoughts on my beliefs that have shaped my identity thus far, and the quest to knowing why I am here. Already, as a child I had my doubts about God. Growing up in Austria meant that being Roman Catholic comes with the territory. I never really believed in penance and the whole concept of Catholicism with its sex-deprived priests always escaped me.
I was a good student but during compulsory Religious Education iin Austria, I rebelled by interrupting disrespectfully. At secondary school I laughed at Frau Herzog, the old Religion teacher with the long grey-streaked blonde hair who spoke so ridiculously softly that she needed a microphone just to teach our class of nineteen students.
It didn’t help my suspicion when, at age thirteen, again in Religion class, we were shown a documentary about Capital punishment by electrocution. This was supposed to be some sort of philosophical ethics lesson on taking a man’s life for a man’s life. I could only watch the first twenty seconds of the actual electrocution. They strapped the convicted man in what looked like a torture chair. I felt a shiver when the executioner pushed down the first lever.
Suddenly I felt a pain like a needle going through my heart. The body of the prisoner started convulsing and smoke could be seen escaping the top of his head and coming out of his eyes. I could watch no more. With tears streaking down my face and my hand over my mouth I ran to the bathroom and vomited violently, as the image circled through my mind over and over again. The logic of showing us these images during religious education still leaves me bewildered.
The last straw to sever my paper-thin belief in the existence of God came a few years later, when on a sunny summer afternoon our school friend clique gathered at the local bathing lake. Our favourite place to hang out for the afternoon was the diving board area, with the 1-metre and 3-metre boards providing plenty of entertainment.
We practised our dives. The boys jumped in, one after the other, at quick succession and then it happened. One of the boys, jumping off the 3-metre board, accidentally landed on another. There was a loud scream and suddenly all the chattering and laughter stopped. The boy who was landed on was shaken but was fine. However, the boy who jumped was no-where to be found.
Adults usually kept well away from the diving board area to give us teenagers some space, but now it was swarming with grown-ups. There was an eerie combination of trying to keep everyone else calm yet shouting demands to ‘call an ambulance’, to ‘dive in after him’, to ‘save him’, to ‘do something’ !!!!
When the ambulance eventually found him an hour later and resurfaced him, he was a picture of pure horror. The excessively absorbed liquid grossly distorted his chest and belly. His skin was a livid white-grey, the color of life had been drained out of him and instead violently replaced by the flood of terror. Water was leaking out of his ears, eyes and every other orifice possible. We were all in shock at this abject image of death infecting life.
I remember that the older people were saying as they were trying to make sense of it and find an explanation for us kids, ‘God took him for a reason, God this, God that’. But all I could think was ‘Why? Why does a beautiful young boy have to be taken? What in the world for?’
Another set of strange utterances from the old lady breaks this reverie and returns me to the large food hall of Coles supermarket. I am starting to think that there is a reason why she in particular is here. Since my God-doubting experiences in my childhood and further various incidents eroding my spiritual beliefs resulting also in a kind of ontological insecurity (who am I and where do I fit in?), I have decided, however, that I cannot completely dismiss the idea of some invisible force ‘out there’ to guide me. Or is it my own force on some strange trajectory unbeknownst to myself?
There have been too many times when things just happened and opportunities appeared or seem to have been manifested. Could it be true that I somehow can manifest things like it is explained as the 'law of attraction' in "TheSecret"? On one level I am a determinist (albeit on the soft-determinism side, as I believe I am still free to choose) and on another level I cannot fathom how all the atrocities in the world can possibly ‘happen for a reason’.
So, why am I here today, wondering the meaning of my life, at Coles of all places? Why has writing become such an obsession? Is this who I am? A writer? I remember this author writing a small inscription for me in the book at her book launch: “Stick with it”.
And I thought, that’s great, but I still have so much to learn; I don’t know if I can ever write well enough to be considered a Writer. I know I’m not a poet or a Virginia Woolf and I never will be.
Maybe my beautiful husband knows something I don’t, seeing he just finished building me the most amazing rustic writing shed in the backyard, complete with Baltic wood-lined walls and ceiling, wooden floor, skylights, Austrian Eckbank banquet seating, wooden ski racks housing three pairs of genuinely antique, wooden skis. Maybe he can sense it is worth spending so much time and effort in building this for me because he can see how happy I am when I disappear writing in it for hours and come out feeling fulfilled.
Agh, here is the old lady again. I try not to make eye contact. She folds her paper and stands up, gets ready to leave. Finally! Then she looks straight at me, and I suddenly feel this connection.
She says, "May I ask what you are studying?"
"Social and Cultural Anthropology," I reply in surprise.
"I see. I once went to university. I wanted to be a writer," she replies. "Unfortunately I fell very ill and I couldn’t continue. And then I raised a family. I have always regretted not being able to complete it."
"Oh that’s interesting," I tell her, now feeling strangely level with her, as if we were now on the same channel. "I am actually doing a double major in anthropology and literature. I am fascinated with anthropology but my passion is definitely literature. So, maybe one day I’ll put it to good use," I surprise myself volunteering all this information.
"Keep going. Don’t ever give up."