I’m in the grocery store speed-walking toward dairy, when I glance left down the cereal aisle and spot my neighbor Doris. My first impulse is to rush past her and sidle up to the wall of coolers where I can reach into the milk—exposing only my backside, which, unlike Doris’ six feet of erect posture topped with a flaming-red, beauty parlor wash ‘n set, is dully unrecognizable—and avoid an encounter.
Doris is retired, widowed, eccentric, and notoriously talkative. And I am in a hurry. I calculate how long I could reasonably pretend to be absorbed in the quandary of 2% vs. skim, all the while holding ajar a fogging glass door. I scope the area for other options and see that I’m trapped. It’s either stay here, hidden in the milk cooler, or serpentine my way over to snack foods, risking recognition. Then I remember: I’m not thirteen.
Doris, who buys anything my kids are selling—overpriced wrapping paper, questionable magazine subscriptions, pies; Doris, who gave her late husband’s treasured tool collection to my husband; Doris, who is always the first to wave and smile at passersby from her car, her porch, her yard, her window; Doris does not deserve to be avoided. I’m ashamed. I grab a half-gallon of skim and penitently seek cereal.
I approach and notice Doris looks cloudy. She stands hunched over a canister of oatmeal, squinting at the small print, her elbows slouching into her hips, her trademark red hair drab with a wide furrow of white at the roots.
“How are you?” I ask. She pulls up from the label and looks at me watery-eyed. Her lips are pursed tightly against a quiver. She needs to say whatever it is she’s about to say, so I wait.
“Not good. My mom died.”
At this simple acknowledgment of her grief, Doris pivots her elbows, opening her forearms into a kind of “hug me” position. She is beset with sobs, and I am triggered like a mother is by her own hurting child. Reflexively, I lean in and hold her.
We stand there—one large, older woman draped over another smaller, younger one—both clutching food items at the edge of our embrace. I don’t care that people in the store are staring. I don’t care that I will be late. I don’t deserve this intimacy after very nearly shirking away, yet here I am, bestowed a privilege and delivered from my bad intentions. It is a good long while until her cries subside.
Doris herself is decades into her golden years; I never dreamed her mother was still alive, though admittedly, I never thought much about Doris at all. Now she’s lost the only person who’s known her her whole life—the one person to whom she was forever young.
Did Doris still feel like a child in her mother’s presence like I feel with mine?
Who even acknowledges the sorrow of losing an old lady—except when she’s your mother?
I ask her what I can do. I must repay her this gift of saving me from my self. Abruptly, she straightens up and tells me there is something. Tomorrow, after her mother’s funeral, she is scheduled for a colonoscopy and needs a companion to drive her there and back. Could I go with her?
So I do. And I take her to lunch afterwards (Arby’s, her choice). Two days later, we go to the library and out for coffee, and a friendship ensues from there. She calls me during Downton Abby to gush over Lady Mary; I take her to the farmers’ market. Recently, she asked if I would be her In Case of Emergency, Please Call… because, she joked, she had nobody else left. I marvelled at her open vulnerability and agreed. Doris is a gift I nearly missed.
Michelle Riddell lives in rural mid-Michigan with her husband and daughter, where the snow drifts are high and crime rate is low. Her writing has been featured in Mamalode, Club Mid, Sammiches & Psych Meds, and others. She is a reviewing editor at Mothers Always Write and a rock star substitute teacher. Connect with her on Twitter @MLRiddell.
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