Sunday, July 29, 2007


The Historian emails me: "Katrinka is in trouble with the people around her. She wants me to take her to the sea for a day. You can come along if you want. It would be nice to see you."

I read the short message and sigh. Katrinka is over 80. Katrinka is the daughter of a heroine. Katrinka is a very angry old lady, living on welfare, but with this huge sense of entitlement. Neither the Historian's suggestions, nor mine, that she learn to boil water to make her own Milo, have borne any fruit.

"I'm a doctor's daughter, H," she snaps. "In 80-odd years, I've never had to cook for myself and I'm not going to start now."

Problem is, in that 80-odd years, she has gone from being the cherished darling of a very rich man, to a cast-off, handed from person to person as a burden nobody really wants to assume with barely a few dollars every month to call her own. She has so little now, that some days, she sits at home and starves. She has so little now, that she spent her birthday alone, and she fell and hurt herself.

It's heartbreaking.

I went to see her after her birthday. With the Historian. We took her out for chicken rice and ice cream (two of her favourite things in the world, the third being fruitcake). We took her out to her mother's and grandmother's grave (which was even more of a treat). But she spooned three flavours of Baskins down her throat and ranted about this nice old man who had sent her money (a lot of it), for something so minor, I felt a surging tide of disgust rise in my gullet.

So this is why nobody helps you. You're never grateful. Simple gratitude would have kept you relatively comfortable...and I turn to see the Historian's face darken with anger.

"That's not fair Katrinka," he says, an edge to his normally patient voice. "Bernie only called Mrs R. to find out if you were doing OK. In case you've forgotten, you don't have a phone and you hadn't answered his letter. He had no way of knowing if you were dead or alive."

"NO!" she barks. For a frail, little old lady, it's amazing how much rancour she can fit into that tiny frame. "He called to gossip about me. To talk to other people about me. And I'm not having that."

I object here. Tentatively. I know it will not do to put her on the defensive. She's a frail old lady with a big, big hurt and it makes her ugly and cantankerous when she gets going. But beneath it all, is the sense of abandonment. She's 15 years old again, and her mother has done something unforgivable. And somewhere in her mind, she keeps fighting for things to go back to the way they were, before. When she was the adored little darling, the princess of her family. Before the intrusion of a little sister, before the war, before Mummy and Daddy got so distant, to when they were a happy family, whose acquaintance was sought by all. When she answered the door in her diapers and lisped charmingly at the visitor:

"Are you here to see the doctor, or his wife?"

Parlour tricks. But when you've been adored, you can never quite understand being reviled. Cast off. Unwanted. As she is. As she refuses to see she is.

"They've all been poisoned against me," she tells me, her eyes snapping.

The Historian had once told me how it was. How even her most sympathetic well-wishers refused to have her live with them, because the demands grew too onerous. How to bathe her. How to make her Milo. How her things should be treated. How her room should be cleaned.

"What Katrinka needs," I said, talking over her bobbing head, "is a full-time nurse."

At this she stops spooning ice cream and turns to me: "No, no, I don't want a nurse. I want a friend to live with me. Pity you don't live here. You could have taken care of me."

I blanch. I'm not the most patient person in the world. And I know she will drive me nuts. She has already driven the Historian, who IS the most patient person in the world, crazy and I can see his patience wearing thin as she continues to castigate those who would help her, who have helped her.

She turns to me after finishing the three massive scoops of Baskins - chocolate, strawberry and vanilla.

"It was very good, but I couldn't taste the strawberry."

It's a small thing, but I feel like she's just slapped me. I came to Ipoh with a few dollars in my wallet. I've started a new job but since I'll have to wait a month to be paid, I'm at the end of my resources. I just thought, if she liked ice cream so much, let her have nice ice cream, which cost more than the Walls or the Magnolia she is used to, and there she is, hands folded primly, telling me it was not good enough.

I choke down my rising bile and look up to see the Historian grin at me sympathetically. This, his eyebrows seem to indicate, is Katrinka. This is why, after once or twice, people are unwilling to help her.

Simple gratitude goes a long way.


Grey Shades said...

Yes a simple thank you goes a long way but then sometimes I wonder if we are you doing anything jus so that we can hear that Thank you or are we doing it because it makes us feel good.... and stood you up did he? I happened to bump into him online and he told me that he was meeting you over the you guys were meeting over the weekend. So you gave him the third degree eh? :)

Jenn said...

No, I didn't expect her to thank me. But in the same way, I didn't expect her to say it wasn't up to expectation. I was poverty stricken little wonder nobody does anything for take everything as a matter of course, with a sense of entitlement - and frankly we don't OWE you jackshit!
Whatever ANYONE does for you is CHARITY!

goldennib said...

Some people never face reality and some people never grow up. Apparently, she's done neither.

It's like being addicted to drugs. Because people keep trying to be nice and polite to her (just because she's old) she will never see that the problem is her.

jackie said...

Jenn, I think this is one of the best posts you have ever written. It just feels so 'real' to me. Like I was right there, experiencing and feeling all of it. You told the story wonderfully. I envy you that talent.

Jenn said...

Nessa: But they don't. One by one, they abandon her, which is why she starves some days. At 80, I think it may be a little late for her to learn. She's stuck somewhere in the 1930s.

Jackie: Wow, thanks....

Daphne said...

what a sad, sad story. for me, one of the most depressing realities is the existence of people who are unable to appreciate goodness and kindness in other people (I know a few). these people will never find happiness lest they learn how to see things in a positive light.

Man, she's 80! Tell her there's not much time... :)

Jenn said...

She is convinced she will live another 10 more years - in that time everything will turn out right. She has survived one world war, tremendous poverty, old age and abandonment. I guess in her circs, I would be dead by now.