A friend to all ages

Article & photos © VANESSA SMEETS

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INSPIRATION: Sarah’s joy comes from entertaining the people she cares about, from preschool to frail-care.

Sarah Widman (88) has finally had her biggest wish come true: the publishing of her first book, The Ant and the Elephant. It appeals to young children and teaches them many lessons:

K.T. (5): “It taught me to love all people.”
J.D. (5): “It taught me to be a better person.”
N.T. (5): “It taught me to work hard for the things I believe in.”

Interestingly, these lessons are all vital aspects to Sarah herself. She loves all people, young and old, by helping out the elderly in frail-care at the retirement home where she is a resident and also at Pretoria Montessori Preschool, where she reads or puts on shows for the children.

“God gave me the gift of making all people laugh, I use it as much as I can,” she says. Sarah found solace from a difficult background by putting on shows and plays for others. All her plays were self-written. Her play, Stages through the Ages, is for a more mature audience and aims to show what friendship goes through in various seasons of life.

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PUBLISHED: Sarah Widman (88) made the local newspaper this week after publishing her first book.

Sarah has definitely worked hard for the things she believes in. She waited 25 years for this first book, being rejected several times by a number of publishers.

She says: “Maybe people are more open now to the ideas of this imaginary world, where we need to escape from stress and technology.” Although her stories reflect Aesop’s Fables in terms of their morals, they are uniquely African and in tune with a child’s mind.

“I speak to my inner child, that’s where I get my ideas… I travel in my thoughts, I daydream, I ask a lot of questions… I’m always curious, like a child, and find joy in observing them.”

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BLISS: A friendly kiss after reading time for Sarah, the children at Pretoria Montessori Preschool’s dearest friend.

She has been a guest teacher at Pretoria Montessori Preschool for the last two years and this relationship has worked magic both ways. The preschool teachers describe Sarah’s presence as “a light to these little souls. They have learnt so much more on being respectful, disciplined and listening to the elderly.”

“I love Teacher Sarah because her stories are always clever and fun… She also gives the biggest hugs,” says S.M. (5).
Her next book, Adventures in Ghost-town, is currently in production and should be published by the end of the year. It will explore a little boy’s brave journey after disobeying his parents.

Lessons from Granny

VANESSA SMEETS

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LIGHT OF OUR LIVES: Granny was a beacon of light in how to live life to the fullest. PIC: Vanessa Smeets

I miss my granny every single day since her passing 21 months ago… She endured a lot in her 89 years. She stopped school at 14 to start working and help her family in a little Belgian village. She survived the hardships of war and falling in love just as it started.

She chose career over family at times and although she once confided in me that this was her biggest regret, she smiled: “One child, one life, to give all I had to give.”

The last time I held her was the eve of my 26th birthday:
“Granny, do you know what day it is tomorrow?”
“I’d rather not, my sweet poupée (doll in French). I know it’ll be my last one with you.”

She sent a birthday card every year of my life. But this message was the hardest one to endure, because there would be no card in the post the next year or the next… There would just be the gaping side of love: the yearning for that hug at the airport, the phone call every Sunday evening, the random coffee and cake date when she was here.

After those words about my birthday, she slipped back into her strange Alzheimer’s world. She picked up a tabloid magazine next to us: “Oh look, it’s my neighbour on the cover!”

No, it wasn’t. It was the king of Belgium. I just nodded and smiled. What was the use in breaking her joy? She had taught me so much:

Save every penny.
Granny gave my brother and I a “doggie bank” when we were little. Every time we bought ice-cream, the odd 50c would go in there. At the end of our summer holiday, we’d have enough to buy the whole family ice-cream.

Cultivate your friendships.
Granny kept a little book with all her friends’ numbers and addresses. She’d check on them regularly. One year, she tore out the pages one by one. I was horrified. “Don’t worry, my child… These have all gone to heaven now. Enjoy your friends while you can.” 

Remember the “little people” as your biggest lessons.
For ten years (daily), she would give a few Belgian Francs to the blind beggar outside her pharmacy. One year, she followed him home to meet his family. Instead,  she was shocked to see him counting coins, examining them one by one. He wasn’t blind at all, but instead of being furious she told him: “I was the blind one all along. Blinded by my kindness for you. You definitely let me see the world in a new light.”

Listen to find love.
Granny met Grandpa as they took the train across Belgium every day at the same time. He was in uniform, going to translate things during the war, she was on her way to work. Grandpa claimed he fell in love with her when she kindly brought him stockings from the pharmacy. He had to give them to the Germans for their wives back home and somehow she remembered, even after just using it as random chit-chat:

“A woman who remembers your needs once, is a woman you keep for eternity,” he claimed years later.

They were married for 59 years.

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PURE LOVE: On an outing with my grandparents in 1988. Pic: My mom

Forgive quickly.
Even though my grandparents fought passionately, granny hated bearing grudges: “It ages you. Every harsh wrinkle is a sour face you pulled once in your life, every soft one is a smile you shared. Remember that throughout your marriage.” 

Savour the moments.
Granny was one of the few people I knew who purposely shopped for the wrong size: “I savour the dress more, if I change it more to my liking. The same cannot be said about men. Take them as they are.”

Don’t over prepare.
When grandpa was late for their wedding day because he was out walking his dog, instead of collecting his suit, she just laughed it off:

“It taught me I had to make room in our marriage even for the unexpected. Love is compromising both your needs.” 

Stand out.
My granny stood out at Sunday mass in her bright pink suit and matching scarf: “Will they remember you tomorrow? Yes, if you stand out. Yes, if you stand for something. I am proud but not boastful.”

I was definitely proud of her and today I boast it to the world: she was the most stylish, kindest and most hard working granny that ever lived. I miss you so much.

Forever grateful,
Ta Poupée

More to read: Granny’s Alzheimer’s World