I was alone in the mercantile when the couple came in.
While they were obviously older than I was—both the man and the woman had totally white hair—neither of them could be described as elderly or frail. Neither seemed feeble or weak. In fact, they both seemed fit and outdoorsy, just two people in their 60s who’d finished walking the trail and enjoying the trees.
When they came through the door, I gave them one of my standard greetings: How y’all doin’? or How’d y’all like those trees?
The man greeted me in such a normal fashion, I’ve forgotten what he said. Then he walked fully into the store and started looking at the merchandise.
The woman, however, stopped in front of the counter I was standing behind. She looked at me and said, Excuse me.
I waited for a question to follow, but none did. Nothing followed. The woman stood there holding a small cluster of needles from an evergreen tree. She looked at me with a strange little smile on her face, but she said nothing else.
I felt uncomfortable about the entire interaction. Had the woman said, Excuse me because something I’d said had offended her? She didn’t seem upset, and she was smiling. Had she done something to make her feel she should excuse herself? I hadn’t heard her burp or fart, and there’d been nothing for her to bump into. Why was she standing there, looking at me and grinning like the Mona Lisa?
In reality, she only stood and looked at me for a few seconds before she moved to the man’s side, but her scrutiny seemed much longer to me.
After giving the couple a few minutes to browse in peace, I asked them, Where are y’all visiting from?
(Side note: If any of my more grammatically gifted writer friends know a better construction for that question, please enlighten me. It’s been bugging me for years.)
The man named some town I didn’t know. He said his brother-in-law had suggested they visit the national forest and see the giant sequoias. We agreed the brother-in-law had given them a pretty good tip, and I let them go back to their browsing.
About that time, the woman told the man they really needed to get on the road.
He gently told her they had plenty of time, and he wanted to do some shopping.
I want to go home, she told him.
I need to go home! she said more urgently.
The man told her again, patiently, that they had plenty of time and they would head home after they’d done some shopping. She told him a few more times that she wanted, needed to go home, but he stayed calm and distracted her by asking what souvenirs she thought different people might like.
As they moved from the display of coffee mugs the woman began complaining about the hat she was wearing. It was too heavy for her head, she said. It hurt! She indicated they should leave it behind. I’d noticed the hat when she walked in. It looked expensive and well-made, something a serious hiker or birder might use to shade his/her head. Would she really ditch it in my store?
Honey, the man said sweetly, that’s my hat.
As they moved through the store, I heard the woman repeatedly ask the man if he wanted the evergreen needles she was carrying. Each time he said, No. You can leave them outside, as if he’d never heard the question before. He never sounded irritated.
I started piecing together a story about the man and woman, and although some of my details may be wrong, I think I got the main idea.
The man and the woman were a couple, as in marriage. Even if they weren’t actually married, that’s the sort of relationship they had. The woman was suffering from dementia or short term memory loss, maybe from a brain injury or a stroke or Alzheimer’s. In any case, the man was caring for her lovingly, patiently, gently.
As the couple placed their souvenirs on the counter for purchase, the woman placed a water bottle we do not sell in front of me.
Do we want to get this too? she asked the man.
Honey, that’s our water bottle, he said calmly.
I’ve thought about those people long after they left the store.
I want to emulate the man’s patience and calmness in the face of his partner’s short term memory loss. I get so irritated when The Man asks me the same question for the third time, even though I want to meet him with love and compassion. I want to follow the stranger’s example and simply answer the question again, not get caught up in the anger of he doesn’t even listen to me! Maybe he does listen, maybe the lady listens too, but their brains can no longer process the information into memory.
Let this be my prayer for patience, compassion, the ability to answer a question calmly and with love the fifth, the tenth, the twenty-fifth, the one hundredth and forty-second time it’s asked.