The rain was falling so hard from the miserable sky that it jumped an inch backwards off every surface. I had just dropped the dogs off at their daycare and turned on to Marshall to head to the spa where I work. The rain pelted the soft top of my Sidekick at such a volume that I could no longer hear James Blunt. And then I saw her.
I drove 50 feet further, wipers sliding frantically back and forth across my windshield, and turned into a circular drive. She walked with her head down, her hand shielding her glasses. Her knitted tam sagged to one side, saturated. She clutched a white plastic bag to her chest and carefully stepped along the sidewalk, negotiating the dips of the uneven pavement. I rolled down my window and asked, “do you want a ride?”
“But, you don’t know where I’m going.”
“I’ll go wherever you need to go.”
She opened the passenger door and climbed in, her tiny body shivering. The heat I had blasting from the vents on the front dash made her glasses fog instantly. They were the kind of glasses that make your eyes look three times bigger than they really are. Her curls hung limply under her tam. She spoke to me through her fogged glasses, telling me she lived up past the college, was I really going that way?
I looked at her white shoes, the kind that are marketed to seniors for walking. She smoothed out her black slacks and apologized for getting my car wet. Instead of putting on her seatbelt she turned in her seat so that she was directly facing me, like we were at a table.
“I’m all alone now. My husband passed on, I like to walk, you know. It keeps me busy, gives me something to do.” She took off her glasses and folded them in her hands. “I walked down to the MCC, you know that little thrift shop downtown?” I did. “The girl there called me to say that she had a big box of glass bottles, someone dropped them off overnight. I collect them, and she knew I’d be interested, so I thought I’d walk down there today. Never expected this rain!”
She asked where I lived, where I worked. When I said the Wild Orange Spa, her eyebrows arched. “Oh, that’s that fancy place. Well, maybe with the rain you won’t be too busy today—people won’t want to go out in the rain to get fancy things done.” My passenger had to be in her late 70s, early 80s maybe. I wanted to take her to the spa and book her for a full day of fancy things.
“Do you have children?” I asked with hesitation. She had four, two girls up north, a son in Surrey and one son, “I have no idea where he is. No idea.”
“Did you see any of them for Mother’s Day?”
“Nope. They’re all quite busy with their lives. That’s why I walk, I have to take care of myself, and just worry about what I can do to make myself happy.”
At the stoplight I turned to look at her and saw all of my grandmothers in her wrinkled face. The skin on the back of her hands was as thin as tissue paper. Water dripped from her hair and slid down her cheeks like tears. Why didn’t she have one of those plastic rain bonnets that every old lady has? Those kind that fold up into a square smaller than a deck of cards?
“So, no, I didn’t see any of them for Mother’s Day.” My heart ached in my chest for her.
“Buggers,” I said.
“That’s right. Buggers,” she laughed.
She pointed out the church on the corner and told me to turn left. My god, she had already walked at least five kilometers to get downtown to the thrift shop. I was amazed, she seemed so frail.
“You think living beside a church all these years would have made me a better person,” she said, “but I’m only human.” And this is when she imparted a few philosophies on me, as though she could read all the questioning cartoon bubbles above my head.
“You gotta laugh. All the time. If you don’t have humour about things, you’ll never get through the down days.”
I asked for her name.
“Eileen Kelly. I know, it’s a lot of e’s and l’s, isn’t it?” She asked mine, and when I said Jules she repeated ‘Joyce’ which was fine. I get that all the time
“Joyce, if you want to come over for tea or lunch one day, I’d like that. I’m usually here. I have a big property (and she did, at least half an acre), and my cat, well, she doesn’t help much with the housework. She just creates it!”
I asked to see the treasures she had bought at the thrift store and told her of my mother and grandmother, how they spend every Saturday morning creeping around garage sales. And the few times that they have held garage sales of their own, how they end up buying each other’s knick knacks.
Eileen unwrapped her purchases like they were baby birds. “I don’t know why I collect anything, seems silly, doesn’t it? Like, what’s an old lady like me bothering with a collection for.” She told me it gives her purpose though, and besides glass bottles, she collects ceramic things with little roses on them. “See.” She held up a porcelain swan with a tiny pink rose on its back. “I bought this one too, it’s a little different. This one has gold on the beak. And they were only 50 cents, which is a great deal.”
I found myself making a mental note to remember the tiny pink rose, in case I found another piece that she could add to her collection. The glass bottles that she originally went to look at “were junk” so she was thrilled to find the swans with those roses.
Eileen opened the car door and said, “thank you for making sure I got home safely.” She apologized again for getting my seat wet, and waved. I watched her climb the steps to the front door of her two-storey house. She waved again, her full arm sweeping the air as I pulled out of the driveway. Resisting the urge to not go to work and run up Eileen’s stairs to tell her I would stay for tea was difficult.
As I turned on to McCallum I passed another old lady waiting at the bus stop, shifting her weight back and forth to keep warm. I wanted to give her a ride too but I had to be at work in less than five minutes. She had a rain bonnet on, at least.
I wasn’t consciously thinking of good deeds or upping my karma or Pay it Forward. Picking up Eileen was a reflex. I was only thinking of my mother and my grandmother, caught in a downpour far from home, hoping that someone would have the same reaction I did.