Overcome by hunger as Karen and I dropped by the local Barnes & Noble this afternoon to pick up a book, I was forced to the cafe for an over-priced turkey sandwich and a glass of tea. Of course, because I was hungry, the line was hopelessly long, and, with a groan, I took my place at the end behind an elderly woman who was preceded by her walker as she peered into the bakery case.
“Do you know what you want?” she asked.
I should pause and say that, here in the South, it is actually not at all uncommon for people next to you in line to stop and make pleasant conversation such as this. Still, as I’m not originally from the South, I’m still taken aback sometimes. She seemed pleasant, though, and I replied that I was still making up my mind.
As the line eased slowly forward, she asked me again as she neared the cash register, as though willing to let me skip ahead of her in line. “I think I’ve nailed it down,” I smiled, but in such a way that I insisted she go ahead. I could not in good conscience take a spot ahead of this woman.
I was distracted momentarily by the humor of a mother in line behind me asking her child if he intended to “be good,” and receiving a matter-of-fact “no” as a reply (hey, at least the kid’s honest…), before my attention returned to the woman in front of me. Having now completed her order, she was counting out change with the assistance of the barista. She had also paid for her reading selection at this register, and was now confronted with a plate bearing her sandwich, her drink, her just-bagged book, and her walker. She paused, and vocalized her indecision. Another barista took her plate, politely offering to assist her to her seat. The woman was overcome with gratitude.
“Thank you…what’s your name?”
The assisting barista dutifully replied with her name.
“What’s your name?” the woman asked the barista behind the register as well, who also answered. I was smiling at the picturesque scene, and the woman then turned and asked me, “What’s your name?”
“Dave.” I replied, smiling at her and exchanging humored, if quizzical, glances with the barista behind the register.
“Well, you be nice to him.” the woman told the barista, and then, noticing our glances, “You think I’m crazy, but I’m just having a good time!”
And off she scooted to her seat.
While Karen and I sat at a table perusing our reading for the afternoon, I noticed the elderly woman on the other side of the cafe area a couple of times. It struck me that it had taken me less than a chapter of my book to forget her smile and jovial, joyful attitude. However, looking at her across the cafe, she wasn’t smiling at her table, alone, peering into her book, and occasionally looking around. I tried to make eye contact with her once, smiling, but as best I can tell she didn’t see me.
Then Karen said she was ready to leave, and we gathered our things, and I didn’t even mention the encounter with the happy woman until we were in the car. Briefly I thought of going over to her and saying I’m-not-sure-what in the cafe, but this impulse had passed. Now, she is only one of those people I’ve encountered that are relegated to my memory.
But, for some reason, after leaving, I couldn’t stand to forget her.
I’m not going to judge her by saying she was lonely and looking for companionship, or by thinking her to be eroding in her cognition in any way. I’m not going to stereotype her, or belittle anything she may have experienced in her long life by pondering what it might have been. I just know that I smiled because of her, and that is something that happens far too little for any of us, and, for some reason, whatever her name, I wanted to record her smile-inducing efforts here. Perhaps to try to immortalize her in some way, to make sure she isn’t forgotten, at least not by me.
Maybe because, remembering the event several hours later, it still makes me smile.