Listen Up

     Since January, I’ve spent Mondays with Mrs. Alice.

     “I wish you could have seen me when I was young!” she says.  But on Mondays she feels young again.

    I’ve learned so much about her, and about myself, living a day with her, in her kitchen and closets, driving her car, pruning her roses and ironing her pillowcases. She loves to talk and I love to listen. With her old mountain accent, every word is wise. I dodge behind a wall sometimes and jot things down in a notebook thin enough to fit in my back pocket. When I get home it seldom looks as profound as it sounded when she said it. She reminds me of someone I loved very much, what seems like a long time ago now. She doesn’t ask a great deal about me. It’s not that she doesn’t want to know, but that she doesn’t need to. In a younger person, this might seem rude and careless, but in Mrs. Alice, it’s honest perception. She can read me, as they say, like a book. This was humbling at first, but I do feel quite loved by her. It comes to me now that there are few things better in this life than a well loved book.

    We were sitting at the kitchen table, creaming corn to put up in the freezer. We had it all over the rug and in our hair. She was quiet for a time.

    “What’s the hardest thing that ever happened to you?” I asked, thinking I knew what she’d say. I’d heard her story many times. First I heard the one all people have prepared, fairly tidy and sensible: birth, marriage, babies, places, ailments. Then after she trusted me with her dinner party arrangements and delicate laundry, after she held my arthritic hands in her own, after I burned a hole in her drapes and adopted her decrepit dog, she told me more. Kikelomo, they called her in Nigeria, “whom we love to pet”. The Yoruba people took her to themselves, taught her their recipes, told her their stories, delivered her babies and named them, precious names. She told me about her work as a surgeon’s assistant, and her life as a wife and as a mother. She told me tales of the grandchildren in the portraits on the walls. She told me which ones were in trouble and which one was eligible. She told me about the Sunday School lesson and what she thought about the evening news.

    So I thought I knew the answer. She’d say God had been good, so good, to her and she would tell me about her mother’s death and her grief in leaving Africa.

   “God has been good to me, so good. Sarah…. there was a time, worse than any other. It’s a right long story.”

    Then Mrs. Alice went and told me a new thing.

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