By Karen Brode
It had been a long day, and I was wandering through the grocery store trying to put a meal together in my mind. The store was almost empty and I was grateful that I probably wouldn’t see anyone I knew. I felt every one of my 53 years, and I was tired in a way that rest didn’t help.
I stood in front of the cheese display when I first noticed him. The old man inched forward toward me, and I tried to ignore him. I didn’t like people I didn’t know approaching me or asking for money. I looked around for a store clerk, but then he said in almost a whisper, “You miss her so much, don’t you?” and I turned to face him. His eyes were soft and warm and I had not noticed before how kind his face was. I felt as if I knew him from long ago. As I stared at him, I began to feel rested and my cares and worries began to melt. His face radiated such empathy that I could not look away. For the first time in so long, I knew that someone cared deeply about me and knew how burdened I was.
Suddenly, I wasn’t in the grocery store anymore, but I was in our old blue 1972 Gran Torino with my husband Gary driving and our three year old son, Brandon, in the backseat. It occurred to me that we were on our way to Aunt Winnie’s house and it was my 23rd birthday. I looked at Brandon in the backseat of our car, not even buckled in when now, we would be arrested for not having a special car seat for him. He stood on the back floorboard and looked over the front seat and ran a matchbox car up and down the back of the seat while making car sounds.
I looked at Gary’s face. It was devoid of the wrinkles and cares that had marched over his countenance during the past few years. He smiled and winked and we turned the corner that led to Ambrose and Winnie’s house.
There she was coming down the steps. Tears came to my eyes as I looked at her in her purple polyester pantsuit. And Pete was behind her in his brown jumpsuit. Gary wears those now, I thought.
I hugged Winnie and tried to hold on longer, but she wanted to hold Brandon. And there was Brandon in Winnie’s arms again! How the sight warmed me! He was kicking and leaning his body over to get down, but Winnie just kissed him and carried him into her house.
Her living room! The old black and white television that only got one channel, the chair by the door, the recliner in the corner, the ivy that sat on Winnie’s coffee table that she polished with baby oil once a week. And I could smell the food that was already on her dining table. Pete had picked tomatoes and onions from the garden, and there were black-eyed peas, smothered steak, and Winnie had the table set and ready. She gestured toward the table.
“All you have to do is sit down, Birthday Girl,” she said.
How long had it been since anyone had made me feel this special? I had forgotten this feeling long, long ago.
I wanted to pull Winnie aside and tell her that I am now 53 years old and the world is such a hard cold place without her. I knew I would feel better if I could just tell Winnie about everything. But how could she understand any of the things that had happened in my life on this day when the sun was shining and everyone was so happy?
Brandon pulled a pan of rolls off the table, and Gary and I looked at each other with worry, but Winnie laughed and picked up the pan and said that Brandon must be hungry.
I sat down at Winnie’s dining table and picked up the beautiful antique crocheted tablecloth and examined the intricate stitching. It was put away among my keepsake items now, but I couldn’t remember exactly where it was.
Why didn’t I look around and appreciate this day more? It was a beautiful summer day and all the people I loved were still around me. I had not yet sat in that funeral tent and listened to the lonely sound of the flaps hitting the tent poles and thinking of all the summers and winters I would spend on this earth without Winnie. Tears leaked out of my eyes as I remembered how hard it was to say goodbye to her. I stared at her and drank in the sight as she held Brandon on her lap. I had not yet driven to the scene of Brandon’s near-fatal wreck when he was 18, and I had not yet put him on a plane to fly to Holland and get married when he was 23, and I had not yet seen him have a seizure when he was 30.
My heart ached to tell Winnie about these things, but I didn’t want to break the spell. It was a balm to my spirit to be in this place with these people. After lunch, Gary and Pete went out to the garden, and Winnie sat down to play with Brandon on the floor. I went to the living room and wrote my note there.
I don’t understand this at all, and I don’t expect you to. I know that today seems like a normal day to you, but it is very special to me because you have been dead for 28 years and being with you and hearing you talk again is wonderful. I had forgotten how safe I felt with you.
I am 53 years old now. I have worries and cares beyond anything I could have imagined on this sunshiny day. Mother had Alzheimer’s disease and stayed 11 years in the nursing home. She didn’t even know who I was the last few years. The heartache and misery is beyond explanation.
Brandon has had so many heart-aches. His life will be so hard. I look at him now—giggling with you, and I wish I could somehow spare him all of it.
You are going to have a heart attack on Saturday morning, February 23, 1980 – less than 2 years from now. Pete will run for help and when he comes back, you will be gone. I will walk through your house looking for you and wanting you to explain this to me. The earth will suddenly be a strange, alien place without you.
Just know that you were so important to me, and I love you so much. No one had more influence on me, and I owe so much of what I am to you. There is no way that on this day I even began to realize how much you meant to me. I will miss you the rest of my life.
And I stuck the note under the ivy plant so that Winnie would see it when she went to polish the ivy.
We hugged goodbye and got in the car and I felt so much lighter as we drove away.
Suddenly, I was back in the grocery store and I was 53 years old again. I looked around for the old man, and he was down at the end of the aisle. I sprinted forward with energy I thought I’d never have again and caught up with him. He turned around and looked at me with a sad expression. I stopped short and looked at him questioningly. He patted my hand and then he handed me the note I had written to Winnie and walked slowly away.
Karen Brode grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.