Friday, May 23, 2014

Poems for when you are old

Each time I visited Helen Alderfer in her two-story Indiana wooden frame home, she placed her “75-dollar- teacup” before me.  Valuable things are meant to be used, not just admired from a distance.

Her warmth and friendliness dismissed my fears that I might break this precious teacup like Elizabeth,   neighbor of the voluble, overbearing Hyacinth of the BBC TV series, “Keeping up appearances,” has.  She asks for a mug so she won’t smash the Royal Doulton teacup with the hand-painted periwinkle flowers set before her.

Tea with Helen was brewed exactly three minutes –she used a timer—and then we drank together,  not just tea, but friendship. We shared writing tips, confidences, and encouragement.

Helen was one of my first editors, when she worked with Christian Living.  She coaxed a number of articles out of me.   She was also the first to invite me to travel a long distance, in fact, to fly, to Pennsylvania, to speak at a widows gathering.

 I could not quite grasp that some group would spend money for a plane ticket for someone like me still working my way through the dark days of widowhood.  I had never done that before. But I flew and was nurtured in sharing  myself with this group of women.

Over time Helen and my roles changed.  In the early 1990s I was the editor and she was the writer.  And I still enjoyed tea with her.

In her later years she turned to writing poetry, “Lyrical descriptions of ordinary life as well as life’s larger stages and transitions.”  The Mill Grinds Fine was published in 2009 (Cascadia).

I wrote a blurb for the publisher' fact sheet: “Pick any poem, and you have chosen a jewel of rare quality. Each word edge sharply reveals truth about a life stage. Each facet reflects beauty in an unexpected way. This slim volume of poetry is a loving gift to the reader, bringing joy that lingers long after the book is laid down.” From time to time I  brew my own cup of tea and linger over her words..

Recently I turned again to her poem “Old age.”  She was still sharing her words of wisdom.

Tread carefully, Helen. This is new ground.
This is not the childhood you survived
Not the turbulent years of youth,
Not the desert places of middle age.
This is a land with new rules:

Among her “new rules” are admonitions not to give advice, to tell old stories, to recite ills (“They are dear only to you”).  Don’t ask people to speak up or repeat (“Not all they say is worth repeating”).  And much more. She finishes her litany of advice with the words: “ Twirl a few dance steps while the tea water boils.” 

Tea water boiling. Three-minute brewing. $75 cups for guests. A recipe for friendship.

Once when I was in Goshen, Indiana, for a speaking engagement, a woman asked me where I was staying.  “At Helen Alderfer’s place,” I replied.

“Oh, the blind lady,” she responded.  Blind? Hardly. Although I had known of Helen’s eyesight problems, seen her large newspaper reader device and large font books, I knew Helen was not blind. She could see far into people’s souls. And enjoyed sharing the light in her own.


  1. I will put the wonderful poetry book on my wish list on Amazon! My birthday is coming up and it sounds like a priceless treasure to spend birthday money on. :)

  2. The book arrived and is the treasure you promised. Thank you!

  3. Dear Katie, just checking in to say that I continue to enjoy this lovely book of poetry so much. I just read the whole of the poem you refer to in your post: Old Age. It is so delightfully whimsical. I love it.