©2013 Nim Gholkar All Rights Reserved
Last weekend I was doing ‘canteen duty’ at my daughter’s soccer club. It was a cold and frosty morning. The kids jogged around the field, warming up before the upcoming game. The parents stood huddled in a corner, rubbing their gloved hands and shivering in spite of their thick woollen jumpers. A couple of other mums and myself watched the game from within the cozy comfort of the club canteen. We divided our duties amicably. One would be in charge of the barbecue, cooking the sausages and fried eggs. One would look after all money transactions. And I volunteered to make the coffees and and warm up the pies.
The morning turned busy within a few moments. A long eager queue formed outside the canteen. I found myself run off my feet bringing out one pie after another from the oven and making an endless round of teas and coffees. After half an hour of manic activity, things quietened down a bit and there was a thankful lull as every one now concentrated on watching the game.
I was about to sit down when I noticed an old silver haired lady, dressed in a pale yellow top, plaid skirt and sensible lace up shoes shuffle up to the counter, her thin mottled hands clutching her walking stick.
Seeing me, she smiled and said ” Good morning, darl. A bit frosty this morning, isn’t it?”
She seemed in a mood to chat and told me she had come to watch her grandson play. ” But it’s freezing down on the field. Can I buy a cup of coffee please?”
As I started pottering around warming the milk and spooning the coffee into a cup, the other mum said ” That will be $2.00, thank you”
The old lady dug into her handbag and removed a tiny purse filled with coins. Slowly, she began to count them one by one. Out came some five cents and ten cents and twenty cents. I finished preparing the coffee and came out of the kitchen only to find her still bent over the tiny mountain of coins trying to work out the exact change. Finally there were no more coins left in her purse and she had managed to put together $1.80. She was twenty cents short. I was tempted to give her the coffee for free, but the club has strict rules and since the other mum had already spoken, I hesitated.
There was a moment’s silence as she stared at her empty purse, almost as though willing the money to appear out of thin air. She then looked up at me anxiously. ” I’m afraid I don’t have enough money. But I might have some loose change in the car. I will go have a look”. I imagined the poor old lady shuffling painfully down hill to the car park which was a five minute walk from the field and all because of a few cents. It would take her forever to get there and back. “Wait” I said, and removing twenty cents from my wallet I placed the coin in her palm. “Now you have the exact money, and here is your coffee”. She hesitated and seemed reluctant to accept the coffee or the coin. I waved away her concern and said “Please don’t give it another thought. It’s only twenty cents”.
After a slight pause she took the steaming cup of coffee. I watched as she took the first eager sip. “Ah” she sighed. “This feels so good”. She smiled and said ” I will bring you back your money”
“Oh please don’t bother” I said quickly. “It’s only twenty cents. Have a lovely day”
The old lady waved to us, and shuffled back slowly towards the field to watch her grandson play. Within moments, the canteen got busy again. By now it was mid morning, and hungry spectators queued up for hot sausage and bacon rolls and coffees. As I flew around the little room, grabbing packets of chips and chilled Gatorades and dairy milk chocolates, I forgot all about the little old lady.
Half an hour later, as I was trying to work out a complicated order for half a dozen coffees, two teas and a hot chocolate, I saw a figure in the distance, leaning on a walking stick and moving slowly towards the canteen. Even at that distance, I recognized the old lady from the earlier coffee encounter. It took her an entire ten minutes to reach us and when she finally did, she was out of breath and puffing painfully. Seeing me, she smiled and waved, signalling me to come out to where she stood.
As I reached her, she gently took my hand and placed a twenty cents coin in the centre of my palm. I couldn’t believe that she had taken all that effort to go up and down the hill just to return my money. “You shouldn’t have bothered” I chided. “It was only a few cents”
She shook her head. ” Yes, it was only a few cents. But my father always taught me as I was growing up that it’s never about the money. It’s about the principle. Thank you for the lovely coffee”. With that, she left me standing there and shuffled away into the crowd.
I felt deeply touched. In the long run, gaining or losing the twenty cents would not have made any difference to my life. In fact, I had forgotten all about it. And yet, those few lovely words spoken by a lovely old lady who had braved the bitter cold to come back and return my money, warmed my heart more than any coffee ever could.