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June 01, 2020

This is the seventeenth chapter in the story of Alexis, her ancestors, and the heirloom pearl necklace that is handed down from one generation to the next. If you haven’t read the previous chapters yet, click here

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Alexis glances into her empty cup. “Put on some more coffee, will you?” she says to Max from her spot by the window overlooking the street below.

No answer.  

Where is he? It is her birthday today, but she is feeling a bit melancholy.

“Max?”

Silence. Then she jumps as he suddenly bursts through the door.

“Special delivery! Your mom dropped it in the postbox,” he says with a goofy grin, holding out an envelope.

Alexis gasps. Another letter from grandma! She runs to the room to read; she can hardly wait. She had been thinking a lot about her childhood days, playing in grandma’s garden lately, and missing her more than usual. This was exactly what she craved.  

 

Dear Alexis,

There comes a time in every life, no matter how privileged or happy you are, that things seem impossible. I don’t know what the future holds, but when tough times visit you, I want you to have this advice, passed on from your great-grandmother Maria.

Did you ever hear about the Spanish flu? You might know this already, but you had an ancestor who lived through it: your great-grandmother Maria, grandfather Henry’s mother. I’m not going to write about the details of the flu. You can look that up in the history books. What I want to tell you about, is the friendship that carried Maria through this time.

Maria’s older brother Jonathan and his wife Celia, including their four children, became gravely ill in this time. Maria, a young trained nurse, who was unmarried and had no children at the time, went to care for them. Things were looking grave: the parents and two of the children were both ailing. It felt as if her worst nightmare was playing out around her. 

Next door to her brother’s house lived Angela. Angela was a few years older, with children of her own and also some sick in her house, but she noticed that Maria was struggling. One morning, standing on her porch, she called to her as Maria carried out more blankets to her own porch, where she’d laid out the children to get fresh air.

“How are things, dear?” she simply asked. Maria, caught by surprise at the caring voice of this stranger, started crying. Unlike herself, she opened up and told Angela how lonely and scared she felt. Angela simply nodded and listened. Her eyes were kind and sympathetic. She praised Maria for being willing to look after her brother’s family. 

One morning, when Maria was particularly stressed as Celia’s fever had risen in the night, Angela said to her: “Go and brew a cup of tea.” When Maria rushed back holding the tea, she said: “Good. Now stand there on your porch and drink it with me.” Maria, thinking the tea was meant as a remedy for one of the patients, burst out laughing. But she obeyed and drank her tea.

Years later, when Maria told me this story, she said that she and Angela learnt many valuable lessons at this time. She would rattle them off to me and make me repeat it back to her. So here they are – Maria’s life wisdom:

  • When times are tough, do one thing at a time – wash the linen, make a cup of tea. And don’t think past that one thing until it is done.
  • A cup of tea can make the world’s problems seem manageable. And a cup of tea shared with a friend is even better.
  • Hardship is like a fire that forges strong friendships. Sometimes life hands you hard times because it is time to make a new friend, or dust off an old relationship.

I couldn’t help but think that Maria’s wisdom is putting into practice what oysters do every day: use the resources at your disposal and make the best of your situation. In the case of an oyster, a grain of sand becomes a pearl. In life, tragedy sometimes becomes a friendship. 

Amazingly, Angela and Maria did not get sick. Maria’s brother lost one child, Angela also lost one. But the two women stayed friends for the rest of their lives. 

Lots of love, your grandmother.

 

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 With thanks to this resource of stories: https://www.cdc.gov/publications/panflu/stories/survived_miller.html




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