The lady on the corner

by DaniGirl on March 18, 2011 · 8 comments

in Life, the Universe and Everything

When I pulled up in front of my parents’ house with a carload of kids, she was standing more or less in the middle of the intersection, shifting back and forth in the middle of the road as I pulled the car to the curb and parked the car.

She was dressed in a dark overcoat that hung to her knees, and boots that looked more like rubber galoshes than winter boots. The day was on the mild side for late winter, but still near freezing, and I noticed right away that she had neither hat nor gloves. The wind played with her thinning hair, and I guessed her age to be somewhere on the far side of 65. From first sight of her, I had an inkling that something was Not Quite Right.

My sister-in-law came out of the house just as the boys tumbled in, I think to get something from her car, although I never did ask why she was in the driveway, too. By the time I got Lucas unbuckled and out of the car, the lady had approached Nat and unleashed a stream of language that was completely unintelligible to us.

If a strange old lady approached me at the Rideau Centre and unleashed a torrent of unknown language at me, I’d probably just smile and shrug apologetically and give her a wide berth. Out in the suburbs, though, with nobody else around, I felt like we couldn’t avoid engaging her. Immediately, I started digging in my purse for my phone, wondering who to call for help.

Nat and I spoke to her in English, and she replied in whatever language she was speaking. She was quite obviously lost. She gestured at the two streets in front of us, tracing paths with her hands as she elaborated in incomprehensible detail again and again. Her manner was calm enough, but her impatience with us was palpable. I could almost read on her face her annoyance that these two (dare I say young?) women were not getting her verbose and carefully spoken message illustrated with the same hand gestures again and again.

Based on the guttural quality and the hard consonants, I guessed her language was something Slavic or eastern European. My father was born in Germany and raised in Holland, so I asked his assistance, hoping his middling German or Dutch might be of assistance, but neither one of those seemed to help.

Eventually, Nat managed to figure out her name was Magalene or something similar and somehow together with a neighbour who speaks Romanian, we figured out she was speaking Bulgarian. And after that, we were stuck. What do you do when you find an obviously lost Bulgarian senior citizen wandering in your neighbourhood while the dinner your mother slaved over all afternoon is overcooking in the oven?

She had drawn the number 146 in the snow, so we ambled toward that number on a house a few doors down, but she shook her head with an emphatic “Neh” when we pointed it out to her.

At a loss, I finally called the non-emergency number for Ottawa police services from the phone I’d been holding all along. The switchboard operator was terrific, ascertaining that no, she was no violent but yes, she was definitely lost and perhaps not altogether in full mental capacity. She searched her records for missing persons and known wanderers and then tracked down an officer who spoke Bulgarian. She put me through to him, and I explained the situation. I asked him if he could try to speak to the woman, even as I wondered if she’d even know what to do with my iPhone if I handed it to her. Sure, he said, and I held out my phone to her with a big smile and encouraging nod.

She took the phone without hesitation and they began to converse. Well, she spoke, in long bursts, repeating the same unintelligible phrases that I’d already begun to recognize and with the same hand gestures pointing down first this street and then that one. By now we were a party of six standing by the side of the road, my sister-in-law and my dad, the neighbours from each side, and Magalene, who told tale upon Bulgarian tale into my iPhone with no signs of ever giving the phone back to me.

Eventually, she did hold the phone out to me, and the constable told us that she was visiting her son and daughter-in-law (or was it daughter and son-in-law) and had gone out for a walk. He had looked up her family by name, but could not find them “in the system.” I kept waiting for him to say something reassuring like, “We’ll be there with a squad car any minute” but instead he said, “Do you think you could drive her around until she recognizes the street?”

I have to admit, that was the only part of the whole exchange that really bothered me. I am more than willing to help out, but I really think the police should have taken over as soon as we identified the woman as lost. She seemed harmless enough standing on the street, but really, who knows what could have happened if she was senile and became panicked?

I told the constable that I could drive her around, yes, but if I did and we still couldn’t find her house, then what? Suburban neighbourhoods have a LOT of streets and I could do that for hours. He said to put her back on the line and he would name some streets in the area and see if any of them were familiar to her, so I handed the phone back to Magalene, who had not taken her eyes from me as I spoke to the officer.

More torrents of Bulgarian, and I could tell when the constable was rhyming off street names as she said, “Neh, neh, neh,” again and again. I was dying of curiousity as to the nature of their conversation as it went on and on and on. While Magalene spoke on the phone, we spoke among ourselves as to what we would do. I could drive her around, I said, and my parents’ neighbour offered to take her inside to await the police. After what seemed like endless conversation, Magalene finally handed the phone back to me and the officer told me her family’s exact address. So pleased was I with this information, and the fact that it was a mere six or seven houses down the road, that I completely forgot to ask how he found out or what the hell they had been discussing for so long.

Magalene and I walked the few dozen steps to 148 (instead of 146) and I pointed at the house, nodding and smiling. “Neh!” said Magalene, looping her arm into mine and pulling me further down the road — and my heart sank. We walked past a few more houses, but I kept pointing back to number 148 and then pointing at my phone, telling her in useless English that the officer was very clear, this was the right address. I had it in my head that maybe we should knock on the door anyway, and eventually Magalene let me pull her toward the house. I’d also re-dialed Ottawa Police Services, thinking I’d have to get back in touch with my Bulgarian translator again.

Suddenly she started nodding and saying, “Da da da da!” and I learned my second Bulgarian word. Neh = no, but Da = yes, that was clear from the huge smile on her face and the way she was suddenly pulling me toward the house. She stopped at the door and gave me a brilliant smile and a tentative hug that turned firm and affectionate when I hugged her back.

I couldn’t quite walk away until I was sure that she had the right house, and as I approached the door I realized that the front door was standing open behind the closed storm door and a young woman was descending the stairs inside. “Um, hi,” I said, holding the screen door open as Magalene stepped back, I think to wave to the small coterie of people still standing and watching from my parents’ driveway. “Um, she was lost, does she belong to you?”

The young woman, maybe 20 years old with dark hair and stunning blue eyes, visibly flashed through surprise to confusion to annoyance and let loose her own torrent of Bulgarian at Magalene as she entered the house. Having bonded with her over our little adventure, my first instinct was to tell this young woman to be kind to my new friend, but really, I just wanted to get home before my mother’s famous roast beef was hopelessly overcooked, so I simply smiled and nodded and patted a quick farewell on Magalene’s arm.

Throughout the reunion scene, the operator at the non-emergency number for the Ottawa police had been on the line, and as soon as I disengaged from him the phone rang again and it was the original operator calling me back to confirm that all had ended well.

This seems a rather long story, and I’m not sure why I wanted to share it, but it seemed important to do so. Aside from the fact that I wished the police had been a little bit more proactive in sending out a car when I’d first contacted them for help, I was truly impressed with how they helped us resolve the situation. Without a Bulgarian translator who happened to have access to the information to trace Magalene’s family, I’m not sure what we would have done — especially since Magalene didn’t even recognize the house the first time we walked past.

It’s been a couple of days, and I keep thinking about her, about how it must have felt for her to be lost and unable to communicate. Now that I know she’s harmless, I’d like to know more about her — is she just visiting? What’s her life like back in Bulgaria? What does she think of our tidy suburban neighbourhood with its identical, cookie-cutter townhouses that really do all look alike as the winter snows recede?

In all, the whole episode probably took up the best part of an hour, and the roast was delicious. I got a long and wordy blog post out of it, and a new friend. I like stories with happy endings, don’t you?


{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Neeroc March 18, 2011 at 9:58 am

Good deed. Ain’t the suburbs grand? That’s not sarcasm, I too would have probably walked away in a more urban setting but have helped on a suburban doorstep.

2 MmeCornue March 18, 2011 at 10:05 am

Wow, that was quite a story! Hope she’ll be more careful another time not to lose her house 😉

3 Kara March 18, 2011 at 11:17 am

I’m annoyed that the police didn’t send a car and that they asked you to drive her around! That’s very disturbing. I used to work in geriatrics, and the thought of an elderly woman, who very likely suffers from dementia, lost outside in the winter is alarming. It is quit common for dementia-sufferers to become violent when faced with frightening situations they don’t understand. She could have become a real handful for you. Plus, how could the police trust that you would see her safely home? I’m glad that she found someone like you to help her. Give yourself a pat on the back for a good deed done well.

4 Kerry March 18, 2011 at 4:58 pm

I miss these types of posts from you. This was lovely.

5 Fawn March 18, 2011 at 5:36 pm

I find it slightly shocking that the woman’s family didn’t take the time to explain anything to you, or to thank you. It took a lot of persistence to figure out where the poor woman belonged — if that were my mother or grandmother, I would sure be grateful!

6 Paula March 20, 2011 at 12:16 am

You did a good thing for that woman and I’m sure she was grateful. I can imagine her fear and frustration she experienced when she realized that she didn’t remember how to get back to the house she was visiting, if she was visiting. Perhaps she has come to live with the younger relative? Whatever the case, I hope she stays safe.

7 CampingGirl March 21, 2011 at 6:11 am

She is lucky that you were willing to help her. I bet most people would have just walked by her.

8 Amber March 23, 2011 at 12:38 am

I’m late to the party, but I just wanted to say I’m glad it all ended well. And that you got a great post out if it, too. 🙂

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