Panty hose. Three pairs would be nice. After all, women can never have enough. At least, that’s what Jean told me as I helped her cross the street.
I had been out window shopping along Michigan Avenue in Chicago one Saturday morning and was not even a block away from my apartment building when someone called, “Dearie, are you going across the street? Dearie, do you think you could help me cross the street?”
I turned and looked at the woman who’d called out for help. She wore a red striped scarf wrapped around her head, only a thatch of white hair at her forehead visible. The collar of her black fur coat, knee-length and quite shaggy like a bear in a rainstorm, was buttoned and hid her neck. She wore plain black shoes, similar in style to the white shoes most nurses wear. She was standing on the corner, holding onto the blue mailbox with one hand and a generic hospital-issued cane with the other.
“Of course I’ll help you,” I said, stepping over to her.
I had noticed her ahead of me, inching her way along, and guessed it must take her hours to get from one block to another. And if she hadn’t called out to me, I probably would’ve passed her without any thought, oblivious to all but my self-indulgent thoughts.
She was still standing by the mailbox when I reached her. She put her cane in her left hand, the hand clutching the hard edges of the mailbox, and I put my arm through her right one, preparing us to walk down the aisle painted like a crosswalk.
“It’s clear. We can walk,” I said and thus we began our journey. And indeed, for Jean and I, it was a journey. For the two steps it took an average person to get from the mailbox to the curb, it took us at least ten more. By the time we reached the curb, “Walk” had flashed and then changed.
We waited and Jean apologized for delaying me. But I was going to Treasure Island, the grocery store on the opposite corner, and so was she, and therefore, it wasn’t much trouble. Except she was in pain. And that was a little disconcerting, even if we were strangers.
“Does it hurt very much?” I asked, watching as she closed her eyes and scrunched up her lips in a pucker of pain.
“Arthritis,” she said. “And yes, it hurts a bit.”
I turned to watch the stoplight, waiting for the green to change to yellow and then to red so that we could begin our slow and painful walk. Here I was, depressed because I wasn’t yet wealthy enough to buy all the great things I’d drooled over along Michigan Avenue and here was Jean, happy to be alive.
Jean and I moved forward, inch by inch, baby-stepping our way onto Clark Street. We’d managed to get to the yellow stripe running down the middle of the road before the sign changed.
We kept going and Jean apologized. Inch by inch. And the Chicago traffic piled up and horns began to sound and we kept moving at a snail’s pace. Again she apologized, lifting her guilty brown eyes to my pitying blue ones. I didn’t want to pity her, but she was in such bad shape. I began to babble, to keep her mind off the impatient drivers.
“So have you finished your Christmas shopping?” I asked.
She laughed, her thin lips lifting her heavy cheeks slightly and the wrinkles around her eyes rippled down her face. “Yes, Dearie. Have you?”
She had no one. I could tell. Or she only had a few on the periphery of her life: a neighbor, her pastor…I don’t know if it was the sadness in her eyes or the loneliness that had wrapped itself around her shoulders like a wet, heavy blanket, but she was all alone, dealing with life because she had to. Jean had strength and courage and determination and I wanted to adopt her.
“I wish. I have no idea what to get my mother,” I admitted, wishing I’d brought up the weather like anybody else would have.
“Stockings,” she said. “Get your mother three pairs of stockings. A woman can never have enough stockings.”
I smiled, thinking about the generation gap separating us. “What a good idea. You’re right. She always needs those.”
She was embarrassed by the slowness of our walk. “No more running for me,” she said, and looking up at me, smiled slightly. She only came to my shoulder. “I bet you could run.”
“Running is overrated,” I said. “Let these people beep at us. Who cares, right? Pedestrians always have the right away. Don’t you worry about it.”
She clutched my arm tightly and wobbled back and forth, much like those Weeble Wobble people I played with as a child. “You’re right. Pedestrians do have the right away, no matter what.” Her shoulders seemed to slope a little less and she seemed to walk a little taller.
We made it to the curb, but the traffic had been forced to sit through two lights. Needless to say, they weren’t exactly eager to shout about the wonderful contributions senior citizens can offer the world.
We could have tried to cross Elm Street, but we decided to wait and let the light go through another cycle. And as soon as that light changed from green to yellow, Jean was raring to go. Did she want to prove to me that she’s not as old or as out of shape as I may think? I don’t know, but we managed to get across the street without a second to spare.
As I helped her to the door of Treasure Island, she told me of how her husband had been a Baptist preacher and how he used to tell her that once he felt his work was done, he knew it’d then be time to see God. And then one day, he came to her and told her he felt his work was indeed done. “It was not long after that,” she said, her voice clear, giving no indication of her feelings, “that my husband and I were in an awful car accident and he died.”
It was only when I looked into her eyes, those wonderful expressive eyes, did I see her sadness, her pain, her love. “Oh, Jean,” I breathed, squeezing her hand. “I’m so sorry.”
“Bless you child. My wish for you is that you find a wonderful husband who will love you as much as mine loved me. God was watching over me today when he sent you to help me. Bless you.”
I offered to help her shop. Actually, I insisted because I didn’t want her to feel it was charity. And besides, I’d gotten to know this woman. How could I just ditch her now that she was inside the store? Was I going to pass her in an aisle and nod in recognition? No, I had to help her.
She allowed me to get her a cart, which helped her walk as she made her way around the store. Together, we passed along the aisles, neither of us picking out much. The main reason she’d come to the store today was for her cat Golden Boy, so named for his golden eyes. He only ate cat food, refusing to eat even her own delicious cooking. So with three cans of Fancy Feast, one roll of Scot Tissue toilet paper and a box of Dove ice cream bars (milk chocolate with vanilla ice cream), her shopping was complete. It seemed almost sad to go through so much just to get to the grocery store and then to get so little. It almost didn’t seem worth it.
A cab seemed to be the best idea for her return trip home. I hurried to Dearborn Street and caught a cab for her. An old black man, who worked for Treasure Island, in charge, I think, of the Christmas trees blocking the sidewalk, helped her climb into the front seat of the cab. (She didn’t like sitting in the back; the front was easier for her.)
She hugged me good-bye and kissed my cheek. “Bless you child,” she whispered in my ear. “I hope I haven’t delayed you.”
“Take care,” I said, and surprised both of us by kissing her soft milk-white cheek.
The driver cleared his throat and I turned to study him. Was he a madman? Would he get her home safely? Or would he steal her purse and kick her out of the cab along some deserted highway miles from her home? Deciding my imagination may be getting out of hand, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and stepped back, closing the door. As I watched the cab drive off, I was overcome with sadness and all because of a woman named Jean with a cat named Golden Boy.
We had talked about other things, about how she thought I was still in high school when in fact I’m about to graduate from college. And we talked about when she was in Europe with her husband and thirty orphans wished to come home with them. Easy to understand since I, as an adult, wished I could’ve gone home with her, too.
Every Saturday after that I found some reason to head over to Treasure Island, but I never saw her again. I wondered if she was okay, if Golden Boy had finally started eating her cooking, if she was warm enough despite the frigid Chicago temperatures. I’d like to give her three pairs of panty hose and Golden Boy three cans of Fancy Feast just because she would appreciate it. I’d like to tell her to quit apologizing all the time. And I’d like to tell her, “Bless you, Jean, and Golden Boy, too.”