He thinks I’m weird. In fairness to him, he’s not judging harshly. I most certainly am weird. He’s a talker, but he prefers conversations with people he knows. Me? I’ll gab with anyone, though mostly, I listen.
Some folks like to travel, some play golf. The world is filled with gourmet cooks, coupon-clippers, rock climbers, hoarders, and inventors. Everyone carries a bit of their childhood with them, most have been brokenhearted, and all but the very lucky have had moments when they wondered if they’d ever be alright again. Lucky in love or lonely, but afraid of commitment. Filled with light or grasping desperately for just a glimmer. Weak. Frail. Strong. Invincible.
We’re hormonal, justice-seeking, hand-holding, and happy. We mourn, lick our wounds, and lash out, sometimes unprovoked. We cradle our loved ones or push them away, dance with blissful abandon or lower our eyes and pray to remain unnoticed.
Most of us are odd combinations of polar qualities. Most of us are weird. And for me, there is nothing more fascinating than listening to someone tell their story.
He can stand in line at the store, sit beside someone in a waiting room, and let the guy in to fix the dishwasher without exchanging more than a nod or a few perfunctory words. In those same situations, I tend to start with small talk that frequently leads to the shopper, patient, or repairman telling me about their hobbies and heartbreaks.
That makes my day.
I met Jerry when he reroofed our house last year. I was taking the garbage out and he was eating his lunch. He held a bag of Doritos out and I shook my head, but I stayed outside for a few minutes while he finished up. He’s raising two teenagers on his own. He’s doing a good job but he worries that he might drop the ball and they’ll pay the price. His wife left a few years back. She didn’t just leave him; she walked out on the kids, too. The constraints of marriage and motherhood simply became too much to bear, so she packed a few things and moved on. It wasn’t him, she’d said. It was her. She needed to shake herself loose. He’s not angry. I’d be angry. He is a little scared.
I don’t know her name, but I recognized myself in her as she stood beside me waiting for our turns to check out at Kohl’s. Her arms were filled with tiny outfits and she could barely contain her happiness. I commented on the adorable little dress on the top of the stack. Her daughter had called earlier in the day, after her ultrasound. It’s a girl. The woman said she knew it was silly to be so excited, but she couldn’t wait to have a granddaughter. I assured her that I understood. I told her that when my daughter and son-in-law stopped by with the pictures from her ultrasound and I found that my first granddaughter was on the way, I immediately ran out and bought a tea set. We both laughed and when a line opened up and she moved forward to pay, I congratulated her again. As I was paying for my purchases, the soon-to-be grandmother was walking toward the exit and even from behind, I could tell she was smiling.
Last Saturday, we had the tub in the upstairs bath refinished. Tom, the technician, is the same age my husband, but looks a lot older. I offered him a cup of coffee and he politely declined, saying that his doc allows him one cup a day and he’d had it on the ride over.
While he waited for the stripping agent to work its magic on the existing finish, he told me about his wife. She died three years ago, at 46. He’d been tired and had gone to bed early. She stayed up to watch a little TV. When he came down in the morning, he found her on the living room floor, but he wasn’t immediately alarmed. She liked to toss the sofa pillows on the floor and pop in a DVD. It wasn’t uncommon for her to conk out before the final credits. He knelt to shake her shoulder. She was gone. An autopsy revealed that she’d had a heart attack. At 46, with no warning signs.
She’d been a wonderful wife and had made his life beautiful, he said. She was a fabulous cook and held him and their sons close. He wondered aloud what a woman like that saw in him and how he’d managed to keep her for over 25 years. He wiped away a tear. I did, too.
In the two years following his wife’s death, Tom had three strokes, one of them substantial. He didn’t really want to fight his way back, but when his son and daughter-in-law announced that he was going to be a grandfather, he knew he needed to make his health a priority.
His grandson is two months old now. Tom lit up when he spoke of the little boy who he was going to visit after he finished the job at my house. He said that a few weeks ago, at the baby’s Christening, he felt his wife’s presence. He held himself together, he said, until it was time to take pictures, when he needed to walk out into the vestibule to collect his emotions. When he returned and stood with the family to be photographed, he left a little space between him and his daughter-in-law—the space, he said, in honor of the woman who should have been standing there beside him.
He thinks I’m weird. Some folks like to travel, some play golf. I talk to strangers. Everywhere, at every opportunity. And it makes me really happy.
Written for this week’s GBE topic, “The Stranger.” If you’d like to blog with us, just clickety-click. All are welcome!
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