Bridge with God
My mother takes gambles with angels. If her Patience is solved, she knows she will be protected and safely climb the high step to her terrace to get some fresh air. My mother is also playing Bridge with God. She does so since she was 89 and He always wins, she tells me.
It is a different story, though, that of her handy man, for he has been born a sure loser. At least that is what he tells to anyone who wants to listen. He moans about fate, how poverty struck his parents, how war devastated his country and how difficult the new life in a foreign country had become. Laws and rules now are making his life a misery. Lack of jobs and money have become hardship. Until of course, he met my mum.
She had just celebrated her 85th birthday and was enjoying an evening meal with her then husband aged 94 years, my stepfather, a charming little man, full of twinkles and sparkles. During the meal he, always happy and teasing, congratulated her on the successful fish dinner:
“Elizabeth, my love, it is the best dinner in this part of Western Europe!”
When toasting her with a glass of wine that he drank each evening, he suddenly keeled over and died. Just like that, without warning. Mum was shocked for sure. But after a couple of minutes she pulled herself together and finished her meal, carefully putting the fish bones aside on her plate.
What God has given should not be wasted.
Now a widow, frail and bent down by arthritis, she had more and more trouble with those little daily annoying jobs. Her pride and joy, the big terrace in front of her bedroom with a huge flowerpot in the centre, had started to look messy. The conifers at the sides, by now largely overgrown, overshadowed everything and weeds had sprouted in the cracks of the paving stones. Buttercups, dandelions and clover were fiercely competing for survival and all sort of grasses tried taking over the gravel path.
Mrs. Anderson-White, mum’s neighbor, had given her the mobile number of her handy man, a Serb from Belgrade, who she highly recommended. In hindsight, I think, she was a clever lady having found a willing lamb in my mother to take him on and rid herself from trouble.
“Elizabeth,” she said, “This man is a pearl, a true pearl. So very precious. And he will do all kind of jobs for you. He will be your handy man, your friend, your comrade. I cannot afford him any longer, as I am going into sheltered accommodation, bless the Lord. But you, still sprightly in your red dressing gown and happy in the independence of your beautiful home, you will get to value his friendship, his loyalty and his eagerness to help with whatever.”
This was the moment when Mum took him on: Gogol, the Serb, as I told you before, a born loser.
But for me he seems more like a winner now. Since my mum has employed him, he has become less of a handy man and more of a friend, and now he is nothing less than her soul mate, the only person she sees.
He comes daily to sweep her terrace and also meticulously weeds the gravel path, just as she likes it. Each blade of grass he rips out with the roots and brings and shows her. He takes days to cut off dead flowers, weeks to weed a tiny square of gravel and years to tidy up the plant boxes along the edge of the terrace. In fact, he is still busy now after four years.
“As the seasons change,” he tells her, “each day brings new challenges.”
Every day my mother gets meals on wheels. When I visit from abroad, she insists that I share her meal but refuses I order one for myself. That would be pure indulgence, she insists.
“You are too fat anyway.”
She does not know that I sneak off to town most days to buy myself snacks, strawberry cake with cream or pretzels to survive.
With Gogol, it is different. She has invited him to give her the pleasure of his company. Each day she orders a whole meal for him, for he is a working man, she points out, someone who needs food for strength. She also pays the rent for his flat:
“A man needs a roof over his head”
But her true concern is his spiritual need.
“Are you a believer, Gogol? Do you trust in God?”
She asks him while chewing slowly and carefully. When he announces he was brought up a Catholic she gives a sigh of relief.
“I always knew it”, she smiles, and “you are a true believer.”
At night Gogol always visits and puts her to bed, even tucks her in. She confides in me.
“We sometimes pray together.“
My mother rewards friendship.
It started with his teeth, Yes, Gogol had lost his old teeth in Serbia and needed dentures to chew all that food. Mind you, he is perfectly able to chew, as he chews all his words carefully. He talks about the poverty of immigrants, the loneliness in a foreign country, the difficulty with a new language and the hardship of bureaucracy and enforced laws and rules which are restricting his life. There are also the people unwilling to listen or giving him a job.
"I feel for you," blubbers mum, wiping away her tears.
“It must be so hard for you. The dear God surely has sent you to me for help.”
And she unzips her green purse and gets out two bank notes. Is this enough?
Gogol shakes his head.
“No, sadly not. Do you know how much a dentist charges nowadays? These brothers are dear, Elizabeth, especially when they promise a good job”
So she sends him to the bank for more cash.
Her bank manager, quite a shrewd man, is soon smelling a rat. Each month she insists on drawing out a hefty cash sum, much in excess to the living costs of a single old lady.
“Why do you need so much money, dear?” he asks her.
Her answer is always the same:
“The dear God wants me to give my money away to the needy.”
What could be done? Mum is not crazy. You still can have a nice conversation with her, about all kind of things, world events, a new politician, TV programs, the food or the weather. No one dares say she is mental.
But the bank manager thinks she might be. He gets suspicious, when Gogol the Serb comes up to the counter waving her saving book to cash the interest. Indeed, he shows him the door and mother is angry, so very angry, when Gogol returns without money.
“It’s outrageous, how banks are treating their customers! What an insult!”
She sits down with Gogol, trying to comfort and offers him whiskey from a dull looking flask she has kept for years since the death of her husband. She does not drink, as alcohol makes her sleepy, but she keeps it for special occasions. She fills a tall glass and Gogol drinks it, his adoring eyes locked onto hers. He makes a toast:
“You are so wonderful, Elizabeth and this is to our great friendship.”
And he silently laughs about those old cheeks that still blush and her milky blue eyes that don’t see how he slips money from her purse into his trouser pockets, how, behind her back he opens the jewelery box on her desk and takes out a ring and a bracelet. For the wife, he thinks, and the daughter-in-law, or for, may be, a cold day that is surely to come.
When the cash she has left on the table to pay her cleaner keeps disappearing, my mother just shrugs.
“It might be the dear God has taken it, when I lost at Bridge. He does not like me to have money.
The Lord always knows best. Blessed be He.”