An Encounter

First posted on Facebook, May 13, 2015

I was in line at CVS, waiting to pick up my prescription, and in addition to the woman standing peacefully in line in front of me there was a thin, old woman, pacing a bit, either nervously or energetically. She moved back and forth before us and occasionally pestered the young man at the register who at one point told her “Your order is nearly ready. We’re getting it together now.”

When I say she was old, I mean relative to me, who at 64 tends to embrace “late middle age” as a fitting label for my place in the order of things. But she was agile and slim, darting about on skinny legs, their tight but mottled skin exposed by below-knee yoga pants worn beneath her baggy windbreaker. Her thinning grey hair was mussed and upthrust in a ragged crown that made her even more bird-like, more alert and twitchy.

When the woman ahead of me in line was called to the counter, the old woman’s look lit suddenly on me. I smiled and, even as she smiled back, she suddenly said, “My! You’re tall.” I think I responded with a new smile and a bit of a shrug, and to this she asked, “How tall are you?” I said, “About six feet. A little less.”

In response, she stepped up next to me, very close, and rested her head against my chest, just below my shoulder, and laughed a quiet, delightful laugh. I laughed too and said, “I was six foot but have shrunk a bit,” which made her light up with a greater smile, and her wrinkled face looked up at me as she said, “That’s right! That’s OK, too.”

As I was telling her that I was also at peace with the rising diminshment of my stature, she was called to the cashier. He’s a young man I’ve known for months now, and I saw his aloofness, his detached professionalism, suddenly dissolve as he smiled at me over her approaching shoulder, not at all to share a joke at her expense but to share a real pleasure in the snap-thin presence of her delights.

As he asks of all of us at the pharmacist’s counter, he asked her birthdate, and she said “3/12/21,” and I, with third-grade skills still intact, realized that she is 94 years old. Thin and funny and quick to talk and happy to put her cheek against my chest and smile, she is 94 years old.

What does this tell me about my need to call myself “late middle-aged”? What do I make of this sudden presence who seems to bear a message as I approach my retirement from teaching in June? How will I find my way to new wisdom, new energy, new fun over the next (if I am truly blessed) thirty years?

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