Tea with Isobel
Tea with Isobel By Sharon Nesbit
Note: The below was originally published on November 9, 2011 by Sharon Nesbit. She recently spoke at our annual meeting and shared some of this again. We thought some of you (who missed it) might enjoy it.
Isobel Zimmerman could never have enough company, and I was always behind in my obligations to her – as well another full dozen people who were living breathing historical monuments with stories to tell.
It wasn’t just that Isobel was old and lonesome and alone in the magnificent clutter of that old house. She was also fey and funny and secretive. What local lore would she unveil in an afternoon visit? Each meeting was a test. If she resolved to trust you, she would tell you a little more the next time.
You could sit there and listen to her stories and absorb the wonderful stuff, a magnificent lamp, a cedar Indian basket, the art deco radio the family won in a Meier & Frank contest back in the day when she and her sisters and mother filled the house with feminine noise and clatter.
I think she was surprised that she had ended up alone guarding the house’s treasures. In all of her family – the sister who died tragically young, the two who married, and the one whose stuff came back to the house — she was keeper-custodian. The dining table was a semi-organized jumble of incoming mail, not just important mail, but all of it — ads, one-page flyers, junk mail. I was always touched to see a special little pile of the post cards I sent her when I was traveling. You never know what the small gesture can mean.
I tried, whenever possible, to give her a head’s up that I was coming. “Good,” she would say, “We will have tea.” I never saw the kitchen of the old house. In many ways, I am grateful because I expect it was awful beyond words. When I arrived, she would have her tea set out, all but the hot water. She set up TV trays in the family parlor, never the front parlor. It was cold in there, and I expect, not a proper place for food.
The wobbly trays held her “nice” teacups along with festive paper napkins, betraying many earlier folds. She had received them at other events and tucked them in her pocket to bring home. In the same way, I expect, she acquired a stash of wrapped hard candies. Two or three were set out on each tray. Sometimes, too, there was a little tray favor of some kind that she had collected at another event. Isobel wasted nothing.
And then there were cookies. Isobel, rail thin and still wearing the old clothes of her professional career, was not the cookie muncher that I am. Her cookies had been sitting for months awaiting just such an occasion. Though they were incredibly stale, I consoled myself that they were store-bought and probably had enough preservatives to prevent harm.
Isobel should answer the summons of the teakettle, bring it from the kitchen and pour water over ancient tea bags. Then we would sit and talk. This worked a whole lot better in the days before she got “Moon,” the most rambunctious and misbehaved of dogs. With Moon in the house, you had to anchor your tea tray and guard your cookies, attempting conversation between shouts at the dog, which did no good at all.
Isobel never thought the dog was a problem. She was so grateful for Moon’s companionship that it did not occur to her to put the dog out or exact any kind of discipline. (Moon, you know, is buried on the front lawn of the Zimmerman House. The Fairview Rockwood Wilkes may be the only historical society to receive a dog, along with a historical collection. Dodi Davies cared for Moon until the dog’s death. Flea dip is not normally an archival expense.)
The tea parties were in Isobel’s good days, when she revealed bits and pieces of family history, hauling out books and odd artifacts. The item I remember best appeared to be a horse hoof, carved of stone of some kind, and cut smoothly, it appeared, from a sculpture. It had a metal rod down the middle, also sheared off smoothly. She had not the slightest notion what it was or where it came from and neither did I. It was also on a tea party day that she dug out a photo of Indian John at his house.
Her conversation about such things were bits of memory spread like a trail of bread crumbs that I tried to follow. I hoped I would remember it all. A tape recorder would have been an unthinkable intrusion.
It was on a tea party day that I took Dick Jones to meet her and he gained her trust and she allowed him to fix things around the house. Dick helped keep an eye on her as Isobel began to fail, confining her life to the dining room where she had a cot set up along the north wall. The old black and white television sat there with her hand-lettered sign, intended to discourage the burglars who had invaded her home and kept her in constant vigilance. I think we still have it, but I remember it indicated that the TV was old and not worth stealing.
Isobel’s tea parties were memorable and on one occasion, though it was not her practice, she presented me with a small milk glass dish. She did not say where she got it, but just that it was hers and she wanted me to have something from the house. I realized then, and now, what a remarkable gift it was from a woman whose job was to keep her household intact. Honoring that, I have returned it to the Fairview Rockwood Wilkes Historical Society.
I will add one more memory, because it is fall and this is the time of year that, even if you couldn’t have tea, that you could not leave Isobel Zimmerman’s house without some kind of produce. Zucchinis, walnuts, squash. We know she saved the seeds and planted them where she could. In addition, I expect people brought her many vegetables.
I called her one day to tell her that I only had a few minutes, but that I would drop by on my way home from work. I pulled into the driveway and there she sat, her legs extended stiffly in front of her like a propped-up doll, her back against the garage door, Moon was under her left arm, and a pile of squash was at her right.
She was wearing an old wool suit that once had been a very fine garment, in autumn colors. She had on a knit cap against the cold and various layers of stockings. Her cheeks were pink from being outdoors and she had the greatest grin on her face.
“Moon and I have been waiting for you,” she said.
That is how I choose to remember her.