Looks like it’s a Friendship Day season around the world. Colorful wristbands are changing hands and relationships are born and mended on this day.
I don’t remember nor do I think much about my childhood friends with whom I grew up until I was fifteen. We all talked at the lunch tables, on streets, temples, and whenever and wherever we met. But still my mind doesn’t strain to think about them.
But that’s not the case with my neighbor Rei in Horten, Norway. The painted wooden ladle she gifted me (eight years ago) is still hung on my kitchen wall and reminds me of our wonderful language-less relationship.
We both were tenants in the multiplex owned by a Norwegian lady. I joined my husband, along with our daughter, on his business trip to Horten. We rented a portion of this yellow building with white trims. Rei, a fifty-five something plump and pleasant lady, lived in the other portion behind my bedroom. I didn’t speak Norwegian and she didn’t speak English.
Our friendship started with exchanging smiles and ended with tears in our eyes when we gave parting hugs. I stayed there for about four months. She mostly stayed indoors with her cat, dog, and a few fish in a glass jar. We met in the grassy front yard where we hung our clothes to dry while my daughter and Rei’s granddaughter Amy played. Like us, the children didn’t have a common language to talk. They played communicating in gestures, chasing, and laughing at each other. Later my landlady told me that Rei was a widow with some health complications and her daughter lived a few miles away. Whenever her daughter couldn’t find a babysitter, Rei took care of Amy.
Initially we just smiled at each other. Then we moved on to letting our kids play. She sat in her rocker in the porch and I sat on the stairs in the front yard and waved bye when the kids were done with their play. During the second month, I longed to place calls to my family in India. But I had no telephone at home. I called them on the pay phone whenever I went to downtown with my husband. I felt lonely and desperately wanted a company. My husband suggested me to buy a calling card and go over to my landlady’s house and use her phone instrument to call. I raised this topic to her. She said I didn’t have to walk three miles to her house every time I wanted to make a call. She said she would talk to Rei and I could use her phone. That worked out. I started to visit Rei frequently.
I used gestures to explain her in English that I wanted to use the phone. She respectfully cleared the space for me in the couch next to the phone. I couldn’t go beyond God morgen, Tusen takk, Ha de bra, Ja, and Nei in Norwegian but with a thick Indian an accent. She nodded for everything with a beatific smile.
Her house lingered with apple, cinnamon, fish, herbal aroma laced with cat smell. I wanted to thank her for helping me with the telephone. I began bringing some vegetarian Indian dishes for Rei. I feared her misunderstanding me that I’m feeding her all unknown things. I planned ahead what to cook next time and took my landlady’s help to write the ingredients in Norwegian and read in jerks to Rei so that she could understand what all I had put in the dish. After tasting the food she used to say something in native accent which was totally alien for me. But her face and smile spoke the truth. The message was as clear as a bell that the dish was delicious. We graduated from meeting within the housing complex to walking down the street to a small shopping center. We both and the kids walked together. I have always been a Miss Chatterley and spoke continuously to Rei in English with gestures. I didn’t know whether or not she understood but she seemed to be acknowledging and listening to me keenly.
Four months passed with we exchanging food, goodies, walking together, smiling at each other, and me using her phone. But we didn’t understand one word we spoke to each other. I tried hard to learn and talk some basic Norwegian but I might have sounded like a quaking duck to Rei.
Once Rei became sick with viral fever and her daughter’s family was on vacation. I made some tomato and peppers soup, baked some warm bread, and rice pancakes for her. She enjoyed every bit of it. Her hug told me what a real feeling of “Thank You” is.
Few weeks later, I tripped on the stairs and sprained my ankle. I couldn’t move for more than a week. Rei did the grocery shopping for me, took the girls out for playing and dried my clothes in the front yard. That’s when I understood compassion and friendship really didn’t need a spoken common language.
My days in Horten were over; I had to pack my things and leave. I invited my landlady’s family, my husband’s colleagues, and Rei for lunch at my place. Rei couldn’t make it that day and came for lunch some other day (two days before my departure) and spent three hours with me. This time I could understand her much better because I listened to her heart. I think she was telling me that her husband passed away five years ago and after that she felt very lonely. Her cats and the dog became her family. At the end she started to sob and hugged me tightly. We both cried in each other’s arms and understood the meaning of our friendship. She gifted me the ladle and a small lantern. The lantern broke in the transit but I still have her ladle.
I didn’t see her after that. I went to say her goodbye on the last day. Her house was locked. I kissed the door and the roses bloomed in her garden and asked them convey my hearty love to Rei.
I wrote to her but didn’t receive any reply. I couldn’t re-establish the contact. But I’m eternally in touch with Rei.
Happy Friendship Day to all of you.
“The language of friendship is not words but meanings.”
~Henry David Thoreau