Self isolation is taking its toll. It is not that I feel lonely, but I am starting to feel somewhat useless. Not being able to hug my family and help look after my grand-daughters is depriving me of a sense of purpose. In my desperate need to make myself useful, I reach out to my elderly neighbours and share with them the results of my frenzied cooking and baking. They have been recipients of my chicken soup, cauliflower cake with Nigella seeds, vegetarian lasagna, mango ice cream, shortbread, chocolate cookies, upside-down apple cake, orange and almond cake, and more recently ANZAC biscuits. They seem happy and tell me how kind and generous I am. Little do they know that my motives may not be as altruistic as they think. Pleasing them gives me a deep sense of satisfaction which is becoming addictive.
For this reason, I am very happy when Nancy accepts my offer of helping her pick her flowers. I will be doing something that she really needs as opposed to sharing what I think she might enjoy.
Nancy grows chrysanthemums
Nancy is 92 years old and has been growing chrysanthemums for over forty years. She usually picks them and sells them on Mother’s Day, the second Sunday in May. But the 1.5 metres of rain that fell at the start of autumn has caused the flowers to bloom early, and in profusion. They must be cut now or they will go to waste. So she decides to put some bunches out for sale on ANZAC weekend, and hopes that despite the lockdown, there will be enough passers-by who will take up the offer of fresh flowers for $1 a bunch.
By the time I turn up just after 8AM on Saturday morning, sun-blocked, donning a broad-brimmed hat, comfortable shoes, and equipped with my newly sharpened secateurs, Nancy has already been at it for 2 hours. She assigns me a garden bed, and with no time to waste, I set about cutting all the open flowers, following her specific instructions to cut them as far down at the base of the stem as possible, and stack them in a wheelbarrow while she works on another bed.
The flowers all used to be pink. Nancy blames the bees for turning them white.
Once the wheelbarrows are full, we proceed into the garage, where, seated side by side on a bench we get to work preparing the bunches. We may not quite respect the 1.5 metres imposed by social distancing rules, but since we do not face each other I trust we are legit.
The music blares from a small transistor on her washing machine as our gnarled fingers strip all the stems one by one, cut them to an even length, and gather the flowers into small bunches which are then tied with short pieces of coloured wool. The wool is left over from the hundreds of squares that Nancy has knitted, and that her friend from the bowling club will crochet together to make blankets for the needy.
Nancy is quite deaf and the music is very loud. We shout snippets of conversations as we work and it is a wonder that she hears anything over the music. The conversation invariably turns to my husband, for some reason she likes to know that I am looking after him. Her particular sense of social justice dictates that a good wife should feed her husband and always kiss him goodbye when they leave the house.
‘Did you give your hubby his breakfast before you came?’ she asks.
The question takes me aback. ‘Good heavens no, he looks after himself.’ She frowns her dissatisfaction and I find the need to explain further.
‘He usually sleeps at least two hours more than me. I get too hungry to wait for him for breakfast and he doesn’t mind. Really…’
‘Besides it’s the weekend, Nancy, and he’ll probably have eggs on toast. I only ever I cook porridge for breakfast.’
‘How does he like his eggs?’
‘Poached I think, yes poached.’
And I reassure her that he is used to cooking eggs to his liking, and is quite capable of doing so.
‘He churns the eggs around in boiling water with a dash of vinegar. He creates a sort of vortex’, I explain with profuse gestures. ‘Then he drops his eggs in one by one, churning them with a spoon. He probably does a much better job than I ever could.’
‘Vinegar with eggs?’ she asks, ‘I’ve never heard of that!’
‘He says it stops the whites from breaking up and having all these flimsy tentacles floating all over the pan. He’ very particular. He likes his eggs to be perfectly shaped, firm little white balls with the yoke set in the middle, just right.’
‘Where did he learn to do that?’
‘Google, of course. He never does anything without checking the instructions on Youtube.’
I suddenly realise that Google and Youtube are not part of Nancy’s lexicon, so I change the subject.
The music tree
‘It’s funny,’ I say, ‘He seems to be sleeping more since the pandemic. Maybe he feels that there is no reason to get out of bed. He’s also dreaming a lot these days.’
‘Really? What does he dream about?’
‘Actually he had a funny one a couple of nights ago. He woke up quite excited and told me that he dreamt that he had created a music tree. He had given it to the Council, who loved it, and they planted it in an open space for everyone to enjoy. People could come and stand under the tree and select a song, any song that they wanted to hear, and the tree would play it for them. The Council thought it would help people overcome their anxiety during the pandemic.’
Nancy laughs, ‘Really?’
‘It was a vivid dream. He described the thick tall black trunk and at the top of it there was a big ball with all these Apple headphones sticking out of it. He reckoned it looked like a giant coronavirus.’
‘Apples? An apple tree?’ Nancy asks.
‘Apple tree? Oh no, no, no, no … I mean it had Apple headphones sticking out of the big black ball. You know, headphones, you see all the young ones using them with their iPhones to listen to music. They plug them in their ears. Apple is the name of the company that makes them.’
Nancy is not impressed with all this new technology. She tells me that she has found no need for all these gadgets. She’s never had a mobile phone, not been interested in using a computer; in fact she doesn’t even have a credit card. She tells me how she was at the Good Guys last week to replace her twin tub washing machine after the spinner broke down. She was quite annoyed that not only did they not make twin tubs anymore, but when she got to pay for her new washing machine, they would not accept her cash, they wanted a credit card.
Come what may
The transistor on top of the new washing machine is blaring 1960’s – 70’s pop songs, mostly country music. A song comes on that I once loved, I tell her that I knew this song in French and loved it.
‘Sing it for me,’ she says.
I wrack my brains, dig deep into my past, and as the chorus comes on, I suddenly remember:
Et pourtant tu dois savoir
Je ne pourrai plus vivre, non plus vivre
Qu’en souvenir de toi
J’aurai les yeux humides
Les mains vides, le coeur sans joie
J’avais appris à rire
Et mes rires ne viennent que par toi
Après toi je ne serai que l’ombre
De ton ombre
Après toi …
‘What does it all mean?’ Nancy asks.
Translating lyrics word for word doesn’t always work, so I give her the gist of the song.
‘She is singing about how sad she is now that her lover has left her. Tears, emptiness, and a joyless heart is all that she has left. With him she had learnt to laugh, but now she will only live in his shadow, with only a memory of their love …’
I subsequently find out that Après toi sung by Vicky Leandros won the Eurovision contest in 1972 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ka89ORFu_Tc). It was a huge hit, no wonder it had stuck in my memory. I had loved it, and still do. It is a song of lost love, but the English version now blaring on the transistor is a song of joy. Come what may, also sung by Vicky Leandros, is all about new found love. Roll on happy times!
Naughty children trees
I wonder about Nancy’s love life. She never married. I tell her how wonderful and generous it is for her to plant all these flowers for mothers, given that she does not have children of her own. But she corrects me, she says she feels like she has had thousands of children, all the ones she has taught over her long career as a teacher and senior mistress.
‘Were they good children?’ I ask.
‘Oh yes, they were good, mostly. But there were some naughty ones, I got them to plant trees around the oval at McGregor High in Brisbane. Then I made them water the trees. You can see the big trees today. That’s what the naughty children did.’
What a wonderful legacy, I thought to myself. Bring on the naughty children so they may help patch up our wounded planet!
Flowers for sale
Once the wheelbarrows are empty, we go back for more, and more. It is close to 11 AM by the time all the buckets are full and we decide to call it a day as the sun is getting hot. We place them under a tree in the front garden next to the FLOWERS $1 BUNCH sign. She has bolted a yellow padlocked cash box to a sleeper. On it, the words THANK YOU. Nancy also leaves out plenty of plastic bags for the customers.
A woman walks past and asks permission to take a photo of the flowers so she can post it on Facebook. Nancy looks suspicious.
‘Why is she going to do?’
‘She’s going to advertise your flowers on the computer so everyone in Kingscliff will know about them.
‘She can’t do that, we’re going to run out if everybody finds out.’
‘Isn’t that the idea, Nancy? If you sell out, we’ll pick some more bunches tomorrow.’
‘Ha, Ok.’ She reluctantly agrees, she would hate anyone to turn up and find all the flowers gone. She hates to disappoint.
But by early Saturday afternoon, all the bunches have sold. We repeat the process on Sunday morning, and by the end of the weekend, 130 homes are all the brighter with Nancy’s chrysanthemums.
Her endless hours over the past months, tilling the soil, weeding, untangling unwanted roots, planting hundreds of runners, setting up the watering system that feeds from her spear pump; then pruning, picking, bunching … all her hard work has paid off. Nancy is satisfied.
$2 a bunch?
Two years ago all her plants had died. The drought had caused the underground water to turn salty and it had burnt all her flowers. The neighbourhood mourned, but it never occurred to Nancy to give up. She dug them all up, made new cuttings from the runners that had survived, and started all over again, albeit with half the number of beds.
‘It’s getting harder every year’, she admits, reluctantly. She tells me that she used to churn in some horse manure that she had fetched from the stables in Murwillumbah, but this is not possible now that her restricted license only allows her to travel a maximum of 15 kms from her home.
‘It’s a lot of work, Nancy, maybe you should put the price up. $2 a bunch, that’s nothing these days’’ I suggest.
‘Oh no, I don’t do this to make money. I just want mothers to have flowers on their special day.’
I know you do, but you if you don’t need the money, you could always donate half the proceeds to the local pound or maybe the Koala Foundation. After the fires, they would appreciate this.’
‘But I can’t,’ she says.
‘Why ever not?’ I ask.
‘Because I’ve run out of black paint for the sign.’