The Oldest Woman

My great aunt told my mother where to make the turn from the gravelled concession road into the farmhouse laneway. The thick green canopy of sugar maples, lining both sides of the long driveway, opened to reveal a large Victorian frame house, painted pale grey.

My great aunt’s cousin, a woman my mother’s age or older, came out to meet us. She ushered us into the very large kitchen. As she seated us at the long table, she explained that the old woman, sitting in a rocking chair, would not join us at the table, even though, with the extra leaves in the table, there was ample space for her, her three family members and the three of us. The hostess said the old woman, being deaf, preferred to take her meals by herself and to stay in her chair on the other side of the room.

My mother had known the hostess and her husband since she was a child. They had gone to the same church and school.

After we finished eating, the lively conversation among the adults at the table stopped. The two men went back to their work outside. The women turned to the old woman sitting quietly, dozing, chin resting on her chest. She had eaten her meal before we arrived.

The old woman wore rimless spectacles. Her braided hair was pulled tight, back from her face. She wore a long black skirt hanging to her ankles, black shoes with black laces, and black stockings. Her blouse was black and buttoned high around her neck. On her lap sat her brass hearing trumpet. The cousin explained that the old woman had tried hearing aids but with no success.

August afternoon sunlight was streaming into the kitchen through the back screen door, onto the colourless hardwood floor. Flies buzzed at the door. The fly swatter sat on the end of the table where we had eaten the fresh tomatoes and corn from the garden.

My mother went over to the old woman and got her attention by touching her arm. Once roused, she lifted her hearing trumpet to her left ear. My mother spoke into the horn as the old woman held the small end to her left ear. I heard my mother ask the old woman if she remembered her. My mother had to repeat her name. She added a clue or two to help. The old woman’s face brightened with recognition.

My mother told her we were visiting our family in the area. She said she was glad to see the old woman looking so well. She asked, “How old are you, now?” The old woman turned her face away as she answered, “Ninety-eight. Too old.”

My mother asked me if I had heard how old the woman said she was. She was the oldest person I ever had met.

My mother seemed comfortable here with these old friends. But she was play-acting too. She was being the good guest. She was trying to include the old woman. I wondered how my mother felt about meeting this old woman who must know the uncomfortable details of my mother’s life, the family circumstances which made my mother feel insecure. The old woman would have known my grandmother and her parents. Maybe she even knew my grandfather, though he had moved away long ago.

I had gathered from the earlier conversation that the old woman was remembered in the village as the post-mistress whom everyone knew and trusted with their correspondences. Remembered, but not visited. Her deafness sealed her off from the village as it did from the conversation in her kitchen and living space.

My mother called me closer, telling me to speak to the old woman, through the trumpet. I hesitated and my mother prodded me.

What could I say? I leaned over to speak into the hearing trumpet, an object I had never seen in use before that day. My mother told me to speak loudly into the large opening while the old woman held the trumpet up to her ear.

I could not think of words. My mind was blank but rushing, searching. What could I say to a woman I never had met? She had met so many children my age in all the decades of her life. What could a 14 year old say to a 98 year old she did not know?

My mother prompted me to say hello and to refer to something about our trip or high school.

I felt pressured, fearful, anxious, and wordless. All my mother’s stories and worries about her family history were confused in my mind. Were these people my mother did not like, in fact? Were they among those whose judgment she feared?

I felt inadequate to say anything to a woman so old that she knew my seventy-year old grandmother when my grandmother was a child and who was the aunt of my great aunt. She was ancient. I was in awe.

Silent, solitary, clothed in black, her presence created a zone, a field, of singular energy. The history of her family and the farm and the region dwelt in her. She still held much power in her slim, firm frame. She surely held power in her memories. She held power in her family.

Would she speak? No.

Remembrance, reverence, silence, peace hung around the old woman in her rocking chair. Why should I break them, interrupt them, with meaningless, formulaic words?

Who was I to try to reach, with a new face and a new being, into that mind, full of memories,? Why not leave the old lady in peace? Why not leave her with her family and her memories? Was not it enough that my mother spoke to her? My mother knew her and the old woman remembered my mother.