“Don’t make eye contact,” Linda chuckled as the heavy-set woman approached the small group mingling around the coffee break table.
“What do you mean?” The newest addition to the office asked.
“She just means that Jennifer is kind of clingy; once she makes her way into your workspace, she plants herself,” offered Sue, the obvious expert in analyzing the office staff.
The middle-aged woman’s dusty gray hair bounced as she approached. The eyeglasses resting at the tip of her nose had smudges on the lens. She carried a small basket with a cloth napkin covering the contents.
“Good morning, girls,” she smiled and placed the basket down; she looked at the new person in the group, “Hello. Have we met?”
“No. I’m Beth. Hello.”
“Jennifer,” she extended her hand. “But my friends call me Ifer.”
“Nice to meet you, Jen.”
“Please, call me Ifer,” she insisted.
“I like the frames of your glasses, so colorful,” Beth continued, and softly invited, “Won’t you have some coffee?”
“Thank you, these are called tortoiseshell.” She pushed the glasses up. As she walked toward her cubicle she replied, “No thanks for the coffee. Enjoy the cookies.”
Linda and Sue burst into giggles. “Do you believe her?” They mimicked Ifer’s attempt to keep her glasses where they belonged.
Beth sampled a cookie and carried her coffee to her desk. She liked Ifer. It was a very nice gesture for someone to bring in homemade cookies. And these were perfectly shaped and browned, unlike Beth’s which were usually assorted sizes and various shades of charcoal.
As the days passed, Linda’s assessment proved accurate. Ifer would come to Beth’s cubicle to chat, not the typical office gossip, but humorous life stories. Ifer had traveled abroad in her younger days and eventually married a local rancher. This woman, who was at least double Beth’s age, was proud to admit that she could drive a hay baler, pull calves during below zero weather, and knew how to prepare every vegetable known to man.
Ifer announced, “In the fall, I’ll bring you some canned tomatoes, you won’t believe how good they are – better than Del Monte.”
If the office were to have a goodwill ambassador, that person would be Ifer. The supervisor allowed Ifer to visit with others; however, if anyone else acted similarly, they would be reprimanded.
Ifer would find her way to Beth’s work area at least once a week. This day, along with a huge zucchini, she brought a mini-photo album that contained photographs of her grandchildren. “The zucchini is for you, but I want the photos back before the end of the day, okay?” She beamed and trotted back to her desk.
Beth examined the large green vegetable. Taped to its side was a handwritten recipe for zucchini bread. Beth smiled.
When she returned the photo album, Beth realized it was the first time she visited Ifer’s work area. Photos of grandchildren, a variety of faces and ages, posed and candid cuteness, adorned her walls. A shelf housed a few ceramic penguins positioned around additional framed photos.
“Oh, I collect penguins, too,” Beth muttered, somehow thinking this would seal their friendship.
“I don’t collect them, really,” Ifer countered, “my grandson (she pointed to the photo of a curly-haired child) gives me penguins every year on my birthday.”
It was about that time when Beth asked, “Why do you want people to call you Ifer?”
“How many Jennifers do you know?”
“Jennifer is shortened to Jen or Jenny, right? And, Virginias. Most Virginias end up becoming Ginnys. I wanted to be different.”
On Halloween, Ifer brought cupcakes with orange frosting to the office. She ignored the snide comments from Linda and Sue and continued merrily on her way. Ifer handed a jar of freshly canned stewed tomatoes to Beth. She clocked out early and was gone for the remainder of the week.
The next Monday, Ifer walked to Beth’s cubicle and handed her a plastic toy with liquid inside. Colorful rings floated around a plastic iceberg where three little plastic penguins sat. If you were to press the button with the right amount of pressure while holding the toy correctly, a ring would shoot up and land on one of the penguin’s beaks.
“This is for you, Beth. It’s one of my favorites.”
Beth pressed the button and watched the ring float up and then sink into the liquid. “This is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. Why give it away?”
“No reason, except we’re friends and I wanted you to have something that I really liked.” She turned so that Beth would not see the tears welling up.
“Thanks, Ifer,” Beth called after her. “Hey, maybe you can share a recipe for those delicious-looking stewed tomatoes.”
Ifer waved and nodded ‘yes.’
During the Thanksgiving holiday, Ifer missed a lot of work. She had been with the company for so long, everyone assumed she had lots of vacation time. She tackled the work when she returned but hardly made her rounds to visit. Ifer hadn’t brought homemade goodies to the office in a while.
The holiday season quickly approached and it seemed everyone was taking time off between Christmas and New Year’s. The office was soon humming again, but the work on Ifer’s desk remained untouched.
The office manager quickly dismissed Beth when she offered to help with the work assignments, “Jennifer will want that when she returns.”
“Is she on vacation?”
“No, haven’t you heard? Her cancer is back.”
A few weeks later the piles of paperwork, the snapshots, and the penguins vanished from Ifer’s work station.
Beth found out that Ifer requested to have the chemo stopped. She remained at home under the care of a private nurse and surrounded by her children and grandchildren. They said that she was cheerful and at peace when she passed on Valentine’s Day. Beth didn’t doubt that for a second.
Beth baked sugar cookies shaped into hearts that night. The cookies were perfect and when they cooled, she boxed them for the coffee break table.
Ifer is loosely based on my friendship
with a co-worker in Salida, CO
word count: 1012