SEPTEMBER 7th, 9:29 A.M.—Hurricane Irma is close enough to smell. Most of Florida lives within the geographical area meteorologists are labeling the “Run-Like-Holy-Hell Zone.”
I’m eating a late breakfast at Waffle House. I am the only customer here. George Strait sings in the background.
The woman behind the counter is in her late sixties. She is lean, rough features. Her voice is like a pack of Camels.
The regular fry-cook is gone. He has evacuated town. She’s here alone until the replacement cook shows.
She takes my order, then cooks my breakfast herself. She is a go-getter, this woman, she knows how to cook an egg.
I ask if she’s worried about Irma.
“Ain’t worried about nothing,” she says. “Been through too many hurricanes to worry about this little old storm.”
Irma isn’t a “little old” anything. Irma is wider than the SEC, stronger than forty-mule-team Borax, and heading straight up the pant-leg of Florida.
The woman delivers my plate, refills my coffee. We talk.
Her husband was killed when they were newlyweds, long ago. She raised two children on her own. It was no cakewalk.
Every summer, she managed to take them to Disney World as kids. She saved her pennies and dimes to do it.
“Family vacations was important to me. Used to stay in an RV park, only we was the ONLY tent, between all them big rigs.”
After raising her kids, she should’ve been cruising Easy Street. But that’s not how it happened. Her daughter got pregnant and returned home with two grandbabies.
She raised them while her daughter attended college.
Today, her daughter is a registered nurse in Birmingham. Her grandkids are in college. Her son lives in Albuquerque. They are successes, and they make her so proud her teeth are showing.
“That’s my daughter,” she says pointing to a cellphone photo. “She’s pretty, ain’t she?”
I hear melancholy in her voice. I’m not the world’s sharpest axe, but I know loneliness when I hear it.
We are interrupted, the cook walks through the door. He has his apron in his hand.
I ask her if I can write about her. This earns a chuckle.
“What would anyone write about me?”
Oh, nothing really. I’d probably write that you’re a woman who knows how to cook an over-medium egg.
Or: maybe I’d write that you have been strong when others couldn’t be. That you loved until it hurt. Maybe I’d point out that even though you earned below minimum wage, you changed the world for a few people.
And for my big finish, I’d write this:
“She’s master at kissing boo-boos, singing away nightmares, making a hot supper appear from nowhere, and paying college tuition with her own sweat.
“She developed callouses on her bare hands, bone spurs, and stiff joints. And she did it all without asking for a damn thing in return.”
After that, I would tell folks why I wrote about you. I’d explain that I had intended to write about the biggest hurricane in modern history. But then, I discovered something even more powerful.
A woman. And even though she only weighs a-buck-ten, she is a real giant.
That’s what I’d write.