The Unexpected Cheese-white cheddar laced with parmesan- is the sample offering at Trader Joe’s as I run in to get a few groceries before heading back for my daughter at ice skating. I take one, happy to see it’s finger food. All their samples can be finger food, even the slaws and salads, eaten in a few bites without the plastic-wrapped-plastic-fork, but then you need a napkin.
I add the cheese to my cart, then turn back for the coffee sample, wishing I had my double-wall espresso cup in my bag, but I’ve gotten careless.
A slender lady in a tailored gray wool coat is taking her time getting coffee, adding cream, stirring, tasting. Her cart is pulled across the sampling space and people are starting to line up. I move to one side of her, slip around to nab a tiny cup. She looks at me, then steps back and says, “I always take another look when I see a woman taller than me.” She stands a little straighter, measuring her height against mine.
I smile. She hasn’t moved much, so I reach behind her for the coconut cream. She’s close to my mother’s age, before my mother died, but here she is shopping by herself, talking to a taller stranger.
She moves to throw her stir stick away and I reach for it. “May I?”
She nods and says, “I’m losing height, you know.”
I stir my sample and stand straighter. “Well, we’ve got to keep doing our Yoga, right?” Still facing her, I sip my coffee and move toward the bread display, reaching down to guide her cart, and she follows.
“Oh,” she says, a wounded sound making me wish I hadn’t brought it up. “I haven’t been doing that. I need to get back to it,” her voice whimpering over all those missed Yoga sessions. Her silvery gray hair is a chin-length bob with bangs. A touch of deep pink feathers into the lines around her thin lips.
“I have an app on my phone that helps you do Yoga just about anywhere,” I say, since we’re having coffee together. “It’s called Down Dog.” Afraid she’ll think I’m selling something I add, “it’s free.”
“Oh,” she says, bending at the waist with a wince. “I got one of those stupid smart watches, but you have to use it with your phone.”
“I know it seems confusing at first,” I say, impressed with her watch choice. I pull her cart a little further from the hungry crowd, “but once you spend a little time setting it up, it gets easier.” My mother would’ve never tried a smart watch. She lost the simple cell phone the week I gave it to her. She gave me back the replacement, saying she didn’t need it.
“Well, I wanted all the health stuff.”
“Good for you,” I say, sounding like a coach. “I’ve got the Garmin version. We’ve got to take care of ourselves.” Part of me wants to take her home with me, hear her stories; another part is restless, move on.
“I’m not doing a very good job at that,” she says.
I notice a few wild white hairs growing out of her chin. My mother had one on her chin in hospice. I try to remember who pulled it. It wasn’t me.
“Well, you look great,” I say. “Your hair and eyes are so pretty. You’re still beautiful.”
She looks doubtful.
“I take care of my animals,” she says, reminding me more of my mother. “I just can’t bear to get rid of any of them. I’ve got six, you know.” She tells me this in a bit of whisper, like a confession no one else should hear.
“That’s okay,” I say, remembering how animated my mother was around her horses and dogs. “You love them, and I’m sure they love you. You can always get help if you need it,” I say, thinking of her as someone with resources.
“My housekeeper cleans while I take care of the animals.”
“Good for you,” I say, wishing my mother would’ve spent some of her money getting domestic help. “It’s smart to get help so you can spend time with your animals. And do Yoga,” I add. We’ve migrated to the dairy case, and I’m thinking about how to make an exit, but I’m torn between wanting to adopt her, and thinking she’s probably needy.
“Do you mind if I ask how old you are?”
She gives me a stern look. I’ve overstepped. I really should be cutting this short. But then she leans in and whispers it like a secret.
“Well, you look great,” I say again.
“I lost my mother last year,” I add, wanting to return her confidence. But the statement sounds strange on my lips, like I misplaced her.
“She was in her 80s,” I say, then quickly add, “the other end, I mean later 80s.”
Momentary terror crosses her face, a reminder of how close life’s end is.
“But we were never close.” I add this detail, unsure it’s an exact truth.
She tells me her mother passed away awhile back too, so I ask when.
“Let’s see… ’79, I think.”
“Oh, that long ago?” It’s easy to calculate. I was married in ’79 and just had my 40th anniversary, but I keep this detail to myself.
“No wait, maybe it was ’89… Or ’99.”
That makes more sense to me. Twenty years ago, she’d have been the age I almost am now.
I need to move on, finish my shopping and get my daughter, but I hesitate to leave her.
Why do I do this, form these little attachments I can’t afford to keep?
I’m always looking for my mother, finding bits and pieces of her in lines, and stores, and voices, gathering them up, trying to reassemble them into something I can make sense of, then casting them away again.
I say good-bye and she heads down the frozen foods aisle, so I move on to dry goods, trying not to cross paths before I get out the door.
In line, I wonder if her six animals are cats or dogs or birds or what.
I wonder if someone might notice those white hairs on her chin and help pull them.
If we might somehow be related.
And if I’ll see her in Trader Joe’s again. If I’ll ask about Yoga and her smart watch, or if I’ll turn the other way, hurry on with my day.
Photo by Mark Stoop