She was eating dinner by herself. White hair. Five-foot-tall I’d guess. She was staring straight forward, chewing in silence. The hostess sat us beside her table.
My wife and I were there for an early dinner. I was scanning the menu, but couldn’t figure out what to order.
“Get the calamari,” the white-haired woman suggested. “It’s the best in town.”
“The best in town?” I said.
“Best in town.”
She was pure Lousianna. You can tell a Lousiannan accent when you hear it. It sounds exactly like a Jerry Lee Lewis record played at half speed.
When the waiter asked what we wanted, I ordered the calamari.
“You won’t regret it,” she said. “It’s the best in town.”
We started talking. Her name was Maria. Her job is sitting with people. Elderly people, sick people, and the unwell.
“Sometimes I sit for ten hours with folks if they need me. Just listening is really all I do.”
She was married once. For thirty-six years. Her husband died unexpectedly. Now she lives alone.
“He died from gallbladder surgery,” she said. “The surgeon nicked him. He was gone pretty fast.”
When she met him she was nineteen and he was twenty-three. It was just one of those things, she said. When you know, you just know.
“He didn’t even have no wedding ring, he just gave me his class ring until he could afford one.”
This makes her laugh.
They got married in ‘65. It was a big year for America. Johnson was in office, the Cold War was getting hot, Sandy Koufax was pitching, Bob Dylan went all-electric.
And Maria was in love. They moved all over the U.S. He worked in retail, she had a slew of jobs. It wasn’t easy, but they made ends meet and had fun doing it. Some people only dabble in marriage. These two were professionals.
Our calamari came.
And Maria’s story was just getting good.
“He liked to read, oh, he read all the time… And cook? He was a gourmet cook. That man could cook anything, even Japanese food…. He used to have a beard, I remember when he shaved it off, and…”
You don’t spend thirty-six years with someone and just casually mention their name at dinner. You tell their story.
So here are some of the highlights:
Her husband was smart. Not just book smart, but the focused and stubborn kind.
When he was forty-seven he decided to go back to college. He went to nursing school, studied hard, and drove one hundred and sixty miles for class every day. It was grueling. It was misery. He graduated when he was fifty and got a job working as a cardiac nurse in the VA hospital.
“He loved it,” she said. “He didn’t like the bureaucracy, but he loved those old soldiers. They were his buddies.”
He worked for nine years in the cardiac ward, helping military men with heart trouble navigate the nightmare of organized medical care. And then he met his own end.
Maria’s story comes to a halt.
“I’ve been a widow for eighteen years. It’s tough sometimes because… Well, we weren’t just two people who loved each other. We actually LIKED each other.”
They never had kids. Not because they couldn’t but because they chose not to. She doesn’t regret this. But sometimes life gets quiet and she wishes she had a piece of him.
But life has not slowed her down. Not at all. In fact, if this woman were a plane she’d be a Supermarine Spitfire flying figure-eights over the Bermuda Triangle.
Maria never stops moving. She has lots of friends, she eats out all the time, she is a firm believer in the healing power of Tito’s vodka, and she travels like a maniac.
She’s been to Rome, Paris, the Carribean, and almost anywhere you can think of. She’s spunky, fast, and self-sufficient. She loves Elvis, Biloxi, and slot machines. She listens to Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, George Jones, and—even though this is completely off the subject—she thinks George Clooney is a hunk.
She is many things. But she is not bored.
“When I get lonely at home, I get up off my dang butt and do something. ‘Cause I ain’t gonna be bored. Life’s too short.”
She scooted off her chair. Our conversation had to end because it was getting dark outside. She doesn’t drive in the dark. But I’m glad I met her. Namely, because I don’t think I’ve smiled this much in a long time.
“Do you wanna see a picture of my husband?” she said before leaving.
She removed a phone from her pocket. In the photograph was a young man and woman. He was handsome. She was beautiful.
“See how handsome he was? I always keep his picture on my Facebook thingy, do you ever do Facebook?”
She tucked her phone back into a pocket. We shook hands. She left for the parking lot and I saw her crawl into her car. Then I watched her red tail lights wink out in the distance.
Tomorrow she will probably go to work where she will sit with someone who needs her. Perhaps for hours on end. She will listen to them, feed them, wipe their face, and she will keep quiet while they sleep. Maybe she will even browse Facebook to help pass the time. If she does, maybe she will read this. In which case I want her to know something:
The calamari really was the best in town.