Tea with Mrs. Park

Rhonda’s children on the first day of school at the house in Dorchester.

by Rhonda Herrington Bulmer

We had been visiting there for a couple of hours, Mom, my sister, my brother and I. Mom had brought us next door to chat with Mrs. Park. I stared out her picture window in the front room and saw that it was sunny and warm and there wasn’t much wind—an unusual day in Dorchester—perfect for riding my bike.

“Would you like a cookie, Colleen?” Mrs. Park asked me, after she shuffled back into the living room from the kitchen. She held out a plate of ginger snaps—the thin, crunchy kind. They seemed to match her look: she had short, curly white hair and metal-rimmed glasses and she was really thin. She always wore long-sleeved shirts in a tiny flower print along with matching polyester pants, even in the summer. Just looking at her made me sweaty.

I shook my head and said “No,” but then I caught my mother’s eye. Her eyebrow lifted like it did when she wanted to make a point without actually saying anything.

“I mean … no thanks,” I added.

I thought a ginger snap was such an old lady cookie. But Trudy liked them, so she took one and crunched away. She’s my younger sister. She was six at the time and I was almost 11. And of course, my baby brother took one. He was almost two. His name is Wes and he’s the one Mrs. Park enjoyed the most. She seemed to get a kick out of watching him dart around the living room.

Why do grown-ups, especially old ladies, like little kids so much? I mean, he was small and he bounced around and he made noises nobody understood and he got into things. Why didn’t grownups find that as annoying as I did? Especially since Mrs. Park must have found some grownups annoying. She had a little brass plaque on her back door embossed with the expression, “All visitors bring happiness—some by coming, some by going!”

I remember the first time Mom read that. She smirked and said, “I guess we’d better mind our manners,” before knocking on the door.

Anyway, Mrs. Park lived next door to us in the other half of a semi-detached brick house on Main Street. But the old people didn’t call it Main Street. They called it “Guard Row.” Our long row of houses was first built for the guards working at Dorchester Penitentiary nearly 100 years ago. I didn’t know what a penitentiary is. Mom had explained that it means “prison,” the place you go when you break the law.

And it was a big, scary looking place, built of stone, and overlooked the village of Dorchester from a high hill right across from Guard Row. On the highway at night, you could see the prison lights for a couple of kilometres, and combined with the tall fence topped with razor wire, the whole package sure didn’t give me a warm, cozy feeling.

Even so, I didn’t really mind living across from a prison, because you couldn’t see it from the front yard. It just seemed like we were living on a country road across from a steep hill. That is, until some of the minimum-security prisoners mowed nearby lawns, because the penitentiary (villagers called it “the Pen”) owned the land surrounding Guard Row. Even though they were supervised, we usually stayed inside while they were doing it.

Mrs. Park’s husband took a job as a prison guard after he came home from World War II and they lived next door for more than 40 years. But we never met him. He died just before we moved in, back when I was two.

Since Mrs. Park was in her nineties, Dad mowed her lawn and took her garbage to the curb and we split the snowplow fee in the winter. We picked her rhubarb for her and fixed up her raspberry canes because she always would look out back and complain that she couldn’t do yard work like she used to.

“My husband Bill and I kept a garden every summer,” she told me once, in a wistful sort of way. “We always had lots of fruit and vegetables and we grew the best raspberries for jam.”

At the time, she had been standing outside feeding the crows and I was playing catch with my mom. I was going to tell her that the crows hang around and wake me up at five in the morning because she kept feeding them, but I caught my mom’s eye and swallowed the words.

Mrs. Park’s three kids were all in their sixties and only visited once in a while. Mom said they always tried to get her to sell and move in with them, but Mrs. Park refused. “I said to them, ‘Why should I move out of my home so I can go sit in your basement in Saint John? All my friends are here!’” she told Mom once.

And for an old lady, she did seem pretty active. Some of her friends were still driving and they would take her places. She kept in contact with them by phone. We knew that because once, Mrs. Park’s son called and asked Mom to go next door to check on his mother. He was worried because her phone had been busy for two hours. When my mom came in, she found Mrs. Park upstairs in her room, gossiping on the phone and she was very put out with her son for interrupting her. My mom was just relieved that she didn’t find her dead!

Anyway, when we arrived today, Mrs. Park was knitting lap-blankets “for the old people in the home.” Mom thought that was pretty funny and said that it proves you’re only as old as you feel.

The layout of her house was a mirror-image of ours, but her cupboard doors weren’t painted. They were coated in the original varnish with old chrome handles. Mom called the wood Douglas fir. The counter was white with gray flecks all through and had a metal strip around the edge.

Her furniture was old and made of dark wood and the rugs were beaten down and the floor tiles in the kitchen were dull and yellowed.

In other words, you walked in and you just smelled the oldness. Old-smell was a quiet warning that a boring visit lay ahead.

I thought to myself, “If this is what happens when you get old, count me out.”

But on this particular day, we stayed for longer than my mother intended. She was anxious leave.

“Well, kids, I think it’s time to go,” my mom said, rising from Mrs. Park’s mint green shiny sofa. I was relieved, but tried not to show it on my face. Wes was still rolling around on the floor, but Trudy and I jumped from our places and headed for the back door.

“Oh … going so soon?” she said, in a kind of pout. “But you just got here. It’s so quiet without visitors.”

“You should turn the television on!” said Trudy, trying to be helpful.

Mrs. Park frowned, making her wrinkly face even more wrinkly. We all stopped and looked at Mom, who opened her mouth and then shut it. I could tell she felt a little guilty about wanting to go.

“My husband will be home soon and I have so many things to do,” Mom said. “I have to make dinner and do the laundry and the dishes … you know, all those pesky chores.”

Mrs. Park gave Mom a half-smile and looked at the floor for a second. Then she met her eyes. “Don’t worry, dear. Someday, you’ll have plenty of time for dishes.”

I wasn’t sure what Mrs. Park meant, but I think Mom knew. Her face changed a little when she heard that.

“Well, just a few minutes more,” Mom said, and sat back down. And they chatted about lilac bushes and what life was like during the war and the best way to grow raspberries.

When she heard we were putting our house up for sale a few months later, Mrs. Park was very upset. Mom said she thought Mrs. Park was afraid that her kids would make her move because we wouldn’t be there to look after all the house stuff.

And a couple of years afterward, that’s what happened. Mom told us Mrs. Park moved into a senior’s home and died at age 97. But Mom never seemed to forget that conversation in Mrs. Park’s living room. She was a lot more relaxed. When my little brother got older and wanted to play a game, she would drop what she was doing and say, “Sure, why not? In the future, I’ll have plenty of time for dishes.”

Rhonda Herrington Bulmer

Rhonda Herrington Bulmer is a freelance writer (www.codepoetmedia.com), author and playwright living in Moncton, New Brunswick. She recently self-published her first young adult novel, Rachel’s Manifesto (www.rachelsmanifesto.com). Her first play, Believe, was produced locally in 2011. She is a member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada, Moncton chapter (www.monctonwriters.ca). Rhonda and her family lived next door to Mary Walton in Dorchester for nine years.