Friday, April 15, 2011

Red Roses for Henrietta -- A Story by Magdalena (and a Bio)

Madeleen and husband, Daniel, stayed at our Adobe apt. rental in the historic area.
(They also stayed at the newer Studio rental.)   
We are honored to have permission to share this story with you.  Madeleen's biography is at the end of this post.  We will be sharing more of her writings in the future.


Feb 9, 2011, Cuenca

Red roses for Henrietta

I noticed her right away, the old woman with her grey greasy hair sharply pulled back. From where I was sitting in our rented apartment directly across from hers on the second floor, I could barely make out the cooking stove in the right corner where her daughter was preparing a meal.

The old woman sat near the half opened heavy blue and white painted wooden doors of her apartment peering out into the garden of the Condominium San Vicente de Paul's courtyard. In the well-maintained garden bloomed white cala lilies, gladiolas, yellow/red roses and long stemmed blue agapanthus flowers maintained by Pablo, the concierge.

On the far side of the garden in a large stone grotto there was a statue of Mary Magdalena looking straight upon the iron entrance gate of the condominium. At night the grotto was lit up so the people who lived there would remember to cross themselves coming and going. Having been raised Catholic, I was afraid I might be tempted to cross myself one day. I tried making a small gesture with my index finger across the chest, but the gesture was so tiny that it felt close to sinning.

In the late afternoon, the old woman would shuffle along her side of the balcony one step at a time with the aid of a walker, moving ever so slowly. She did not get very far and seemed eager to get back to sit on the couch near the door.

Daniel and I took to waving at her. The first two days she merely stared at us. She reminded us of Daniel's mother, Frieda, who had lived with us until she passed away in our home at the age of 95. By the third day we got a tentative smile and our first wave. After that I fantasized that she looked out for us every day.

Her daughter made her do daily exercises with her walker, short bends in the knees, up, down, up, down. After a week she made it over to our apartment with the help of her daughter. When they finally got to our apt the daughter introduced Henrietta to us.

Henrietta looked ancient, she must be well over ninety, perhaps a hundred. We had watched Daniel's mom's world get smaller and smaller and as her world had shrunk the tighter she had hung onto us. Frieda, was not always easy to take care of and at times we yelled at each other; I even called her nasty names, none of which I was particularly proud.

Frieda had been fiercely independent, but could be as sweet as a lamb when other people came around. Even when she could barely see due to macular degeneration she had insisted on living by herself. But we were afraid she would hurt herself or perhaps hurt someone else by starting a fire. She had burnt several pans and left the stove burner on more than once without knowing it. She made independence look like an illusion.

I imagine Henrietta's world to be very small too, from apartment to balcony and back, stopping to look out of the window at the Rio Tomebamba or perhaps just to rest. There are a lot of plants in containers on their balcony. Henrietta waters the plants daily, taking a long time, carefully bending over each plant, studying, touching and watering. Perhaps she even talks to them. When I see her daughter watering the plants and do not see Henrietta I wonder if she is not feeling well. Daniel waters all the plants on our side of the balcony, even though they do not belong to our apartment. He also feeds Homer the pigeon with a bad foot. One of the digits is so diseased that it is grey and dangling, which makes my stomach queasy, especially early in the morning. When Homer goes over the Henrietta's side of the balcony, she swats at him to make him go away.

Today Henrietta is all by herself walking the balcony. Slowly, Henrietta takes a step at a time, her mind concentrating on moving one foot after another. Her gray, brown thick socks, crunched at the ankles, reach all the way to her knees. She is wearing practical brown shoes, possibly a bit too big for her, a brown wool skirt and red sweater with a white sweater underneath. All I am wearing is a blouse and I am sweating. She moves carefully from one window facing the street to the next before she makes her next turn towards our apartment. Her grey, greasy hair is tightly pulled back emphasizing her ruddy scrubbed face. When she finally reaches our apartment, her eyes sparkle as she reaches out her ruddy hands towards me, her big smile revealing poorly kept yellow, brown teeth. Her smile completely disarms me and I have to make effort to subdue the tears filling my heart. She tries to tell me that her daughter is not there today, she is working, writing. At least that is what I think she says, my Spanish is lousy.

I want to do something for her, and for days I contemplate buying her some red roses, roses para el corazón. I found 24 beautiful deep red roses at the mercado and decided to give her a dozen and keep the other dozen in honor of Frieda. Frieda's anniversary of her passing was the next day, February 1st.

Henrietta was sitting in her usual spot on the couch looking out of her apartment. She probably watched me carefully, every step, with flowers in hand. This was my first time in her apartment. Behind her, there was a nook in the wall filled with numerous small Maria Magdalena-type icons, too many to count and too overwhelming for me to contemplate. Right in front of her, no more than 2 ½ feet away was the dining room table and a kitchen area joining, all no bigger than the sitting area of our apartment across the way. All very tidy, modest and snug.

When I give her the roses, she gives me one of her big smiles and sits quietly looking at the roses and smelling them. Our communication is mostly through gestures, smiles, and here and there words picked up. I cannot tell her how much she has touched my heart. The blood red roses will have to do the talking for me.

Back at my apartment across the way, I watch her hold her red roses for at least 10 minutes before she lets her caretaker put them in a vase. It is at that point my tears come undone and spill into my heart.


Born in the Netherlands and immigrated to the U.S. arriving on a whaling freight ship from Antwerp in Houston, Texas, when 16 years old in 1958.

Graduated from San Francisco State University with an M.A. degree in Child Psychology with emphasis on Clinical Research.

Writing as well as painting has been a passion since I was a child, keeping diaries all through my life. At different times in my life I was involved with groups of playwrights, poets, and artists, both in Hawaii and the Northwest.

My life was interrupted by two bouts with cancer in 1991 and 1994. Retired from an organization I owned, that helped people with cancer find treatment options all throughout the world, in 2008.

Co-created four limited edition art books which are in collections at various universities in the Northwest.

Retired to Cuenca, Ecuador this year (2011) with my husband.

Before coming here I looked for books to read about living in Ecuador but found only “how to” or “how not to” books with facts about expenses, getting a VISA etc. I could not find a book other than blogs that could give me the emotional and psychological aspects of living in Ecuador. I hope to remedy this situation.

This is the 2nd blog of Madeleen's work.  To read the 1st poem, go to

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