She was a pretty girl. A teenager. Dark skin. Black hair. And alone. She was standing in the canned soup aisle of the supermarket. Scared.
Miss Wilma—which isn’t her real name—was an elderly woman, reaching for a can of chicken broth from the top shelf.
She was going to make chicken and dumplings. It was a recipe that had been passed down from her great grandmother. It was a recipe which, women in her family claimed, could cure yellow fever, and croup. And on one occasion in Mount Dora, Florida, 1969, it prevented divorce.
The girl reached the top shelf for the old woman. She was a tall girl. Seventeen, almost eighteen.
A pang in Wilma’s gut told her something was wrong. There was something in the girl’s face. The girl looked terrified.
She started talking to the girl. Their conversation led Wilma to ask where the girl’s mother was.
“I don’t know,” the girl admitted. “I think I lost her.”
But the girl hadn’t lost her. The mother had left.
The girl’s mother had disappeared from the state, and left her daughter in the supermarket. The girl had been looking for her mother for hours.
“Why haven’t you asked for help?” asked Wilma.
“Because I don’t wanna get my mom in trouble,” the girl said.
Wilma was going page the woman over the supermarket intercom, but the teenager begged her not to.
“But,” said Wilma. “What’ll you do? How will you get home?”
The girl shrugged. “Ain’t got no home.”
The girl was from Jacksonville. But truthfully, she was from everywhere. She’d been living in a car with her mother, roaming highways since her early days. Her mother had a talent for falling in with the wrong people—which is how the woman had kept a drug habit going. Motels, RV parks, public shelters, those were her homes.
The girl hadn’t slept in a real bed in over a month, nor eaten a home cooked meal.
Wilma did what felt right. She took her home. She fed her. Chicken and dumplings the first night. Ham and scalloped potatoes the next. Baked spaghetti with meat sauce the night after that.
Wilma gave the girl her son’s old bedroom—a room still decorated in football memorabilia. Wilma heard the girl crying sometimes, late at night.
She was alone in this world. Except for Wilma.
So, Wilma kept the girl busy. Wilma was seventy years old, and driven. She called the girl her neice, and the girl called her “Aunt Wilma.”
And Aunt Wilma had purpose again. Women like Wilma need purpose. They need cheeks to kiss, and children to hug. It’s why they were born.
She taught the girl to garden. She taught the simple pleasure of digging in dirt and making things grow. She taught the girl to cook. And she adopted her.
She took the girl to church. The girl was a singer. She stood next to Miss Wilma every Sunday, singing with all her heart.
She helped the girl find herself. She helped the child become a woman. She helped the woman become a mother.
The girl went to college, and the rest of this story tells itself. The girl is no longer a girl at all. In fact, she is a middle-aged woman herself.
She still has faint memory of her biological mother—a woman she never saw again. But that memory is overshadowed by recollections of a woman she once met in a supermarket.
Even so, she’s kept her own story secret for most of her life. She’s only told her husband, her oldest son, and a few others. And she might very well keep this a secret until it’s her time to go.
“So why are you telling me?” I asked her.
“Because,” she wrote. “Aunt Wilma passed away eight years ago, and sometimes, I just find myself wanting someone to know what she did for me.”
Well. Then, by God, I will be that someone.
Rest easy, Aunt Wilma.