Columbia, South Carolina—I stopped in the Capital City for food. I find a simple, no-frills chain-restaurant that is filled with cars.
I’ve been driving since morning. I’m not picky. A cold beer would be nice. Maybe a burger.
There’s a ten-minute wait. Even the bar is full.
So I wait outside. That’s when I see her. She is on the sidewalk. A small woman with white hair and rough skin. She wears a red T-shirt with the words: “Y’all Hush” on the front. She is smoking.
She tells me she’s waiting for the rest of her dinner party. But there’s a problem.
“My son had a flat tire,” she tells me. “God, I’m so worried. He is coming from Augusta.”
I can tell she’s nervous. She tries him on the phone, but he doesn’t answer.
“Oh,” she says. “I hope he’s okay. I’m worried ‘bout him.”
She lights another worrisome cigarette.
So I keep her company.
She tells me about her son and his two daughters—her beloved grandbabies. This brings a temporary smile. For a moment, she’s not worried, but a granny.
Our conversation doesn’t go far. I ask basic questions. I’m just trying to keep her talking. Talking fights off worry, my mother always said. I’m not sure if this actually works, but it’s worth a shot.
I learn about her. She’s from Waynesboro, Georgia, originally. She got married when she was eighteen. Her boyfriend did the honorable thing and married her. But his honor only lasted three years.
He left her with one kid and a second on the way. She was a baby herself when he ran. She was young and scared. It was the classic sink-or-swim scenario.
She dog paddled.
“I worked hard all my life,” she says. “Didn’t never ask NOBODY for help. Taught my kids work hard too, and to be respectful and nice.”
This is the gospel according to hard-working women. It’s a simple one.
Today, her kids have families of their own. Her oldest son—the one with the flat tire—works in Augusta. It’s not far, but it’s far enough for her to miss her grandbabies.
She lights another cigarette. She dials her son again. Nothing.
I hate to see a mother fret. My mother used to worry so hard she could make herself short of breath. But then, this is a mother’s occupation in the world. To care too much.
“He ain’t answering,” she says. “What should I do?”
Well, all I know how to do is talk. Talking is free, and my mother claimed it helps a body feel better.
So she talks about her kids. She is busting at the seams with pride.
That’s how women like her are. They were put on this earth to do a job. Their life’s work is children. Babies, kindergarteners, middle-schoolers, high-schoolers, and beyond.
They’re expertise is kissing skinned knees, and singing babies to sleep. They give late-night advice to wayward teenage sons. They work full-time. They do it without bitterness—I don’t know how.
We are interrupted.
A middle-aged man jogs through the parking lot. He has a toddler on his shoulder, a little girl walks beside him.
“Oh thank God,” the woman says, stabbing her cigarette. “I was worried about you.”
Her face turns ten shades of happy when she sees them. She holds grandbabies in her arms and nearly cries.
We say goodbye.
The hostess leads them to a table. I take a stool at the bar. I can see her from across the restaurant. Her old face is wearing a grin. She’s bouncing a toddler on her lap, smiling, eating French fries.
I know life isn’t easy. I know it’s hard, and unforgiving, and sometimes ugly. I know there are a lot of things out there to worry about. Who am I to claim otherwise? Nobody. That’s who.
But if you’ve read this far, there is something I CAN tell you—whoever you are. I know it won’t make anything better, I know we are strangers, and I know you probably hear this all the time, but it’s worth a shot:
I love you.