She was old, but old in a way that years alone could not define. Old with a wisdom that goes beyond years. All of her learning, each of her challenges and triumphs, losses and victories were finely etched in the delicate lines that covered her face.
Her life was much simpler now than it had ever been, although it had seemed to be like this forever. Memory has a way of flattening time, but it can also stretch it out beyond existence. She carried her house with her, as it were, much like a tortoise or a snail. Hers, however, not carried on her back but dragged along behind her. Life’s belongings, all the treasures and necessities condensed down into one shopping cart. Still, her house was as neatly arranged as if she had a series of large sweeping rooms instead of a small pile of cardboard boxes. A place for everything and not a thing out of place. If something should fall from its appointed location, it was gently nudged back into its appropriate home.
She caught my eye as she struggled through the door of the Laundromat where I was fulfilling my domestic responsibility for the day. I was told it never got this cold in this part of Texas, but the wind today certainly had a bite to it and the rain fell as drops of ice. The Laundromat had been quiet, only a woman and her son and a couple of others who came and went. Most people had decided not to venture far from the warmth of their homes until the weather had ceased its reckless abandoning ride. Upon seeing her, my heart was filled not with sorrow or pity, but with deep compassion. I reached out and placed a warm blanket of caring over her shoulders, for it was warmth that she had come to seek in this place. All of this done without a glance, without a trace that I had even noticed her entry. Everyone is entitled to privacy.
Watching her from the corner of my eye, I saw that she did not smoke and that she drank only water, poured into a small cup from one of the plastic jugs that she carried with her. So much for the stereotypical street person. I wondered when was the last time she had eaten. I thought to share with her some of the fruit I had purchased that morning, but was uncertain of the possible rebuttals. Charity is given by people who have wealth to people who don’t; this was sharing. My second thought was to drop some money quietly into her cart, unobtrusively, so that she might find it later. Still, I was filled with apprehension over moving too closely, of instilling a fear in her simply by my presence. What I needed was to find a way to quietly slip past . . .
. . . she watched that cart very carefully, as if it was the only string left to bind her to this planet.
As I watched her complete her morning routine, I was impressed by the beauty of this woman. Long flowing silver hair was untied from a neckerchief, then a second, then the tight bun in which it was tied. Brush downward with long, even strokes, then collect the loose hair from the brush and store it in its appointed place. Coil the hair tightly, tie it back into a knot, and then layer it back again under the cloth covers. Finally, a small mirror pulled from the corner of the cart, and a long, narrow tray appears. Face powder, red lipstick. It intrigued me that she should pay so much attention to her coiffure, and yet these things had obviously been important to her for some time.
Finally, we were left alone, each on our own sides of the room. “Good-bye Mrs. Ross!” one of the women had called out upon leaving. In the quiet I discovered the reason for the diligence of her morning routine. It was for herself certainly, but also for someone who had left long ago but still continued to walk with her wherever she went. She spoke to him quietly, but shared with him all that had happened, just as she had done so many years before – in their parlour, over tea. In the silence of the room she took a long, lasting look out the picture window, and I wondered what she saw. She sat down in one of the plastic chairs, pulled her cart close to her, and closed her eyes. An angel in tattered clothing. She didn’t need the money I thought to offer; she was going dancing in her dreams. Long gown and dashing young man leading her around the room.
Good-bye Mrs. Ross. I wish you well. Any room on your dance card for a secret admirer? One who watches you from across the room and wonders . . .
Mike Pedde 7/3/96