(Photo Credit: swooti.com)
Maria Elena Bocanegra was 78 years old when I first met her. She was a retired lawyer who specialized in International Law. She was first to have found a table at breakfast in this old Georgian house converted into a bed and breakfast near the university belt in London, in Russell Square to be exact. As it was very early and there were only two of us in the cramped dining room, we shared the table over orange juice and muesli knowing that I had time to kill before I hied off to the London School (LSHTM) for my workshop.
She said she had been traveling solo since she became a widow more than ten years ago. All her three children had been grown up and were pursuing their own family lives and careers in various parts of Spain. She had been coming back in this same bed and breakfast for the last ten years and had forged this long standing professional friendship with John, the landlord so that despite newer hotels and inns in tonier places like Piccadilly, she kept coming back to this place that had withstood hundred of years of history, both bitter and sweet and the tender beatings of time.
It was obvious she was eager to talk with someone. Or anyone. The rest of the guests had been French teenagers out early to look for MacDonald’s, a couple was headed for Scotland and the other to visit their grandchild.
Not that I did not have my own plans. I was in the last few days of my stay and after school, I had planned to trudge the stretch of Charing Cross for used, hard to find books, slip by Buckingham gardens and read a book by the pond with lotuses and swans.
But Ma. Elena was very engaging, sharp and witty, looking much younger than her 78 years. Her ways, both measured and slow however, told me somehow she had some sense of time catching up on her.
From giving me tips on solo traveling , she segued to something more obtuse, more deathly serious.
‘Do you have children?’ she asked
At the time, I did not have any, yet. I shook my head.
‘Good’ she said, as she wiped her lips with a plaid table napkin.
‘Once you do, make sure you do not transfer your properties in their names as long as you are alive’, she emphasized each word with her heavily accented English, her eyes misty and glowering.
I almost choked on the muesli. She had struck me as a loving, caring mother from her earlier stories. But then, retired she might have been, this was a lawyer talking.
‘And why is that?’ I feigned non-chalance, carefully spooning my cereal, making sure they drowned in fresh milk. I wanted to ask if she was talking from experience but decided against it.I wanted to argue about estate taxes and the impracticality of being intestate, laws on Succession notwithstanding. But I thought I’d be better at being a good listener. I never probe. I knew well enough it would be rude to intrude.
‘Believe me, once you do, they won’t pay attention to you anymore’.
I nodded in agreement and sighed.
I told her ‘Of course I will take the advise of the wise Senora!’ as I excused myself from the breakfast table to get the phone call from a friend in Toulouse.
As I walked back to the dining room, I thought she must have been a very lonely old woman. She had left by the time I came back.
During the rest of my stay, she would be waiting for me in the same table in the corner, eating the same amount of muesli and drinking the same orange juice wearing the same black colored dresses until the morning I had to leave. She regaled me with stories of the days when her husband, a fellow lawyer was still alive, when the children were young and mischievous, their days in school and her own florid and successful law practice.
Despite making me promise to visit her in Majorca, I never got to do so.
She would have been 93 by now. And I would never have known if she had made a will or not.
But her advise continues to ring in my ears up to this day.