“Tsk”. It’s a simple sound that rolled off the tip of her tongue and spoke volumes to my teenage brain. That one syllable, a universal language spoken by so many, was Mrs. Smith's proclamation that something was not quite right or below her very reasonable standards. It was followed with an arched eyebrow and an ever so slight shake of her head that meant "straighten up".
As a teenager and young adult, her "Tsk" was usually directed towards my using the wrong fork, inappropriate slang or having a self-serving pity party. I’d immediately correct my wrong not wanting to disappoint or make the same mistake again.
It's not that Mrs. Smith was a tough old bird, as she liked to call herself. Rather it was my wanting to live up to her expectations. She was an important role model and a cherished friend who, well into her 70s, first took my 13 year old self under her wing and taught me so much about life and the world beyond our back yards.
When I was 21 years old, the toughest part about moving away from our small town in Ohio, where we lived just a few blocks away, to "the big city" (which was really a small suburb but a train ride away from Manhattan), was telling Mrs. Smith.
We sat at her kitchen table for 30 minutes while I sobbed uncontrollably and unable to speak because I would miss her so much. I must have been a sight because, when I finally spit the words out, a major look of relief crossed her face followed by a big smile and an encouraging hug.
I found out much later that she had confided to my mother that she thought all those tears were an indication that I was about to be an unwed mother. Hardly! No wonder moving 800 miles away was a relief to her and no "Tsk" was heard.
After I moved away, many, many times I called Mrs. Smith under the pretext of checking up on her but often it was about just needing to hear her voice-- Her "been-there-done-that-you-can-do-it-too" voice that always encouraged and cheered me on.
We spent hours on the phone catching up with each other, sometimes several times a week. During this time, our conversations shifted to more adult, age appropriate topics-- and so did her "Tsking".
She tried to teach me "streets smarts" as an independent woman working in a big city and in a man's world. And she wanted to make sure I experienced everything that was available to me in Manhattan-- Theater, arts, culture...
Our phone conversations always started the same way.
Hi Mrs. Smith!
Oh there you are! How's my girl?
Only once in our friendship do I remember our conversation starting differently and that was when her beloved Mr. Smith passed away. I was about 32 at the time. She was so sad and so confused in the immediate hours after that it took three tries for her to realize it was me on the phone.
This time her weepy "How's my girl?" was followed by a defeated "Tsk" as if to scold herself for the confusion. My heart broke for her because I knew her sorrow was deep as she struggled through this difficult time.
She hated the idea of having attended the funerals of so many people she cared about. But she tried to be stoic and said to remember the good times-- remember the positive-- remember to keep your chin up-- Then she'd roll her eyes, shake her head and say.... "Tsk". It was her reminder not to collapse into a puddle of tears and grief.
Mrs. Smith was 96 years old when she passed away nearly 18 years ago. All of her friends and most of her family predeceased her. She had no children and she lived a few thousand miles away from a distant, never in touch, 70-something nephew. We were her family, my mom and me, everyone else was gone.
This year, I've come to understand her "Tsking" in the face of grief a little too well. With so many loved ones passing away, my heart is sad and I spend way too much time overwhelmed with loss and loneliness.... And I can hear Mrs. Smith "Tsking" in my ear.
There is a profound loneliness that comes with losing so many people you love and adore. The times you want a girlfriend to chat with, a mentor to turn to, a party pal to cheer up with, a wise relative to guide you, a loved one.... and... and... and... so many are gone.
Welcome to www.TheFiftyFactor.com - Joanna Jenkins