Saturday, March 12, 2011

Unimaginable Pain.

I thought I already knew what I would be writing about today but my original subject matter required a frivolous and flippant tone and I cannot bring myself to write like that in light of everything that has happened during the last thirty plus hours.

The earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan have captured the worlds attention. I know I am not alone when I find that regardless of what I am doing, my thoughts are constantly turned towards that island in the pacific and the people who live there.

As I write this on Saturday morning, CNN is playing on the TV and I feel numb. It is as if my mind won't allow me to think too deeply, a form of self protection perhaps. I feel sympathy and will be reaching for my credit card to help in some small way, but I simply cannot wrap my head around the enormity of the situation.

On the afternoon of the earthquake, several people I know were working over in Tokyo. Through the marvels of technology, and in spite of the major system breakdowns, messages were posted on facebook,  texts were received and sent.

By evening of day one, the people I know all accounted for. However, a good friend of my husband is still trying to make contact with family and friends who live near to Sendai. With 9,500 people reported missing in the region, we can only hope he has some good news soon.

Yesterday was an inservice day for students in the Beaverton school district so, like many parents, I watched the news unfolding with my son. We sat in silence, full or horror and awe.  We could not believe what we were seeing, as the tidal wave swept across the countryside, poured across poly-tunnels and roadways, gathered up lorries and cars and crushed buildings, creating a bizarre and evil soup of mud and metal and wood.

 I can still barely allow myself to think about the people - the fathers mothers and children -who were inevitably mixed into that heaving broth.  Even thought the image has been replayed many times, the visual impact is no less.

As is often the case, it took one story, one shot captured by reporters on the ground, that will stay with me forever. It is not graphic and not so very different from many posted across the world wide web.

A father and son, surveying the scene. They appear to be standing absolutely still. In shock one can only suppose. Are they looking at a pile of debris that was once their home? Or are they simply trying to get their bearings in a neighborhood that they could once walk through without thinking, and is now as unfamiliar as a landscape on the moon? The boy is clinging to the man and I can't help think that in a world that has literally been shaken to the core, is his father now the only thing he can rely upon to stand steady and firm.

Looking at the photograph I cannot help but wonder about the woman; the wife and mother missing from the scene. I can only hope that she is safe, as we  all hope that other mothers and wives are safe.

The fact that the picture is taken from a distance is poignant. It suggests that the photographer can see and feel their grief and respectfully stands far away.

 The disaster is on a scale larger than most people could ever comprehend, but the tragic consequences will affect people deeply and personally, creating many tiny pockets of unimaginable pain.

Words can't describe the magnitude of the event and we are all left feeling helpless. The footage of the churning water left me speechless but this photograph touched a chord and brought real tears to my eyes.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The sweet old dangerous driver.

There seems to be a theme this week. Another elderly lady in a car park caught my eye.

 I was outside a local store (not the one with the peculiar smell), wandering between the pots of pansies and summer bulbs lined up in the covered area.

A grey Toyota Corolla pulled into a spot close by. Something told me it wasn't going to stop in time and I was right. The worn front tires jolted against the curb then breached the side of the path. The whole vehicle rose up, paused for a moment, like a swing curving upwards through the air, then dropped back into place.

I expected to hear the growling engine to go quiet. The woman inside must surely have realized that she was as far into the space as she could go? But this did not seem to be the case. In fact the driver pressed her foot against the accelerator and the car mounted the sidewalk once more.  People glanced over, looking nervous. A woman with a child stepped back.

But this time when the car came to a halt the engine was turned off. Although two wheels where still in the parking spot and two butted up against a pallet piled high with bags of compost, the owner seemed happy with her parking.

An employee of the store stepped forward. "Er..." he began as the elderly woman pushed the drivers door open wide. She applied more force than was necessary and we all heard the door hitting the side of the vehicle in the next bay. Fortunately the nonchalant driver had she'd clipped a monstrous SUV and had made contact with a mudflap the size of an elephants' ear. If any damage had been incurred it would be to the Corolla.

The lady slowly emerged. Her hair was white as duck down. It floated above her head as if pulled and teased by static.  She was short, dumpy and rosy cheeked. I could picture her baking apple pies.
Steadying herself against the door frame of the car, she reached inside and grabbed a stick. She leant heavily on the cane, trembling with the effort, as she hoisted her bag onto her shoulder and straightened her curved back.

The next task was to close the door.  She placed her hand flat against the window and pushed hard.

The door slammed into place but bounced open again. She tried again, applying even even greater force. But the same thing happened. The second time we heard a crunching sound. The sound of metal being squeezed by metal. The old woman was oblivious. She got set to slam the door again.

The employee, who had been watching, leapt forward.

"It's the seat belt," he explained. "It's hanging out the door. The buckle's getting caught."

The cloudy haired lady frowned and flung the seat belt inside. She closed the door, and began to walk away.

"Did you lock it?"

"Oh!" The lady paused mid step. After rummaging through her bag she said she thought perhaps the keys were still inside. The helpful young man re-opened the door. He reached towards the ignition and removed the keys. He then locked the car and handed the fob to its owner.

The pint-sized woman smiled and shuffled off. As she made her way between tables loaded with spring annuals, she caught her bag against a tray of pansies and knocked them to the floor.

The store employee sighed and bent to pick them up. He caught my eye and said, "When is old, too old to do you think?"

I thought about this as the little old lady stood pondering how to enter the store through the door marked 'exit'.

"That car's probably her life line." I said, watching her searching for buttons to press and stamping on the mat -  in the hope of triggering a sensor I supposed.

"I know," The man agreed "But it could also be a death trap."

The exit doors slid open as a couple with a loaded cart came out. Our  lady swung her stick, walked into the store and disappeared.

The young man shook his head and straightened the last of the pansies. "I just hope she takes care." he sighed.

I agreed and carried on my way.

But it left me wondering.  When does 'just old' become too old? And on what criteria must we all decide?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Someones' Grandma.

       I was in a super market this afternoon. It's one I rarely visit. I don't like its lay out and it has a funny smell. The one upside is that it is an outlet for TicketsWest so sometimes I still go in.

     When I do brave the strange aroma and the disappointing range of veg,  I find myself scanning the faces and profiles of the other shoppers. I am searching for one woman in particular. I don't know her name, we only met the once, but I am on the look out all the time.

      About two years ago I was cruising the aisles in the afore mentioned store. It had just been updated and I was hoping to be impressed. Nothing had changed. The produce was still poor quality, the range of   products limited and the smell, if anything,  seemed to be worse.

      I wandered around, leaning wearily on the handle of the shopping cart, looking for things I knew I wouldn't find. In the canned goods aisle I felt a tugging at my coat. I turned, expecting to see a small child who'd mistaken me for its mother, or to discover that my jacket had snagged on a passing basket or shelf. Instead I saw a tiny old woman. She smiled and bowed 'hello'.

        I wasn't sure of the correct etiquette. She was clearly Japanese, but I was English. Should I bow back, and if so, how low? While I was still pondering the question she tugged at my sleeve and pointed to a place above my head. I turned and followed the line of her extended finger. Apparently she wanted me to help her pick up something that was beyond her reach.

       This happens to me all the time. I'm not excessively tall, but I'm above average height. And, unless I'm on an aeroplane,  I tend to make eye contact with strangers and this seems to make me easy to approach.

     I lifted up my arm and rested my hand on a random tin. "This?" I asked. "Or this?" I continued touching items on the shelf she pointed to until, at last, she nodded and her mouth gaped into a smile.

     I handed her the item. There was much bowing and nodding but as I set my shopping trolley into motion, she hung on to my sleeve and pointed down the aisle. She clearly had more shopping to take care of.

     I followed her round the shop for another quarter of an hour. The tip of her conical bamboo hat barely reached my shoulder and her worn, cotton espadrilles made no sound on the linoleum floor. She was swift and efficient. She knew exactly where to go and what she wanted. Her cart was soon full. Mine, on the other hand was empty, so when she indicated with a decisive nod of the head that she was done, I smiled, waved goodbye and hurried off.

     I knew I wasn't going to do my 'big shop' that day, but the store is not so bad that I couldn't stock up on basics like eggs and milk and flour. When I reached the  cash registers, the diminutive shopper had gone.

     I went through the check out, (remembering that another reason I hate this place is that they still offer plastic bags) and set off outside to my car. I dumped the single bag of shopping on the back seat and closed the door. As I stepped back I tripped against something  low and small. I turned round and there she was. She'd popped up out of nowhere, like a leprechaun or gnome.

      The miniature lady  pointed at her chest, then at her shopping and my car. I cocked my head on one side. I thought I knew what she meant, but I needed to be sure.

      She pointed at me again, then mimed gripping a steering wheel and driving. She pointed at the bags of shopping in her heavily loaded cart and mimed staggering under the weight.  I involuntarily glanced at my watch. This expedition had already taken twice as long as it should have done and I had other things to do. She saw that I was having doubts and held her hands out in front of her, palms inwards, just a few inches apart, indicating something short or small. The distance to her home, I guessed.
 "O.K." I said. "Get in."

     Of course, I couldn't day 'no'. This fragile woman, who spoke no English and looked as if she had only recently stepped off the boat, was unlikely to produce an axe or gun. But besides that, stirred something had stirred within me, and I knew just what it was.....

      My grandmother lived until she was ninety seven and she only gave up cycling a few years before that. The roads around the house she had lived in for over seventy years (yes, seventy years, really) grew busy towards the end of her life. She had a few near misses and, I seem to remember, a fall.

      There were two ways into town from where she lived. One took her along main roads and the notoriously busy and narrow Stone Bridge. The second was picturesque and ran along side one of the prettiest embankments in the world. The path by the river was, understandably, the one that she preferred.

      Even so, in spite of the graceful swans gliding by on the fast waters and the flower beds full of colour almost all year round, there was a downside to this route. She had to get over Bedford's landmark suspension bridge and although it wasn't particularly high or very wide, it involved a considerable number of steps.

     Grandma's bike was old and heavy, she was also old and no longer very strong. To get over the bridge she had to ask for assistance. And this is what I thought of when the tiny Asian woman pointed at me, herself and my car.

     The teenagers my grandma asked for help where the sort other people steered away from altogether. In fact my grandfather (who died several years before she did), used to complain about them al the time. He was wary of the glowering youths who gathered on the bridge. He didn't trust them - what with all their chains and leather jackets, their safety pins and ripped up jeans. He eyed them cautiously and suspected they were up to no good.  

     My grandfather warned my grandma to avoid their type entirely. He assumed that one of day soon they would run off with her bike. It was hard to imagine what a group of punk rockers could possibly want with a cast iron, sit up and beg, nineteen forties ladies bicycle, but my grandfather wouldn't have put anything past them.

    My rosy cheeked, white haired grandmother, on the other hand, walked right up to them, smiled sweetly and asked if they might lend a hand. She maintained that if she was polite and kind to them, they would act the same way towards her. It turned out she was right. She never had any trouble from them and they always helped her up the steps and to the other side.

     I thought about all this as my trusting and grateful passenger pointed left and right. She really did live  close by but it would have been a long and difficult journey for a small, elderly woman carrying a heavy load.

When we said goodbye she spent many minutes expressing her gratitude. Her words were in a language I had no knowledge of but the message in her eyes was articulate and easy to understand. I assured her that it had been my pleasure.It was the least that i could do. She was probably someones' grandma, so how could I ever have refused?

Bedford Suspension Bridge. Not huge but difficult to cross if you are an octogenarian carrying a cumbersome bike.

The Stone Bridge back in 1916 (when my grandma was six). It wasn't such a bad bridge to cycle over all the way back then....