The waitress brought the eggs. The clerk rang up the earrings.The hostess served coffee. All seem to be everyday acts completed by ordinary women; but upon reflection, each woman is anything but ordinary.
Years ago I piled my girls in the car for a vacation — they were ages 10, 8, and 4 at the time, and the goal was to get to the warmest beach we could drive to within eight hours. We went to a small little fishing village in Florida just east of Gainesville, which hugged the neck where the Suwannee River meets the ocean. It seemed like a village frozen in the 1950’s. Our big SUV, loaded with bikes, roller skates, Barbies, and bathing suits, seemed out of place, as if we’d missed the exit to Disney World.
Our motel suite was modest, with a kitchenette full of vintage appeal. The floors were black and white checkered vinyl, and there was an aluminum two-top table with turquoise vinyl stools. The beds had seagulls on the coverlets that had faded into the sandy background. We could walk across the street to the beach, down the block to the one grocery store, or stroll along the bay to the village’s two restaurants. By noon, we had covered the area on our bikes, finding the less obvious: old cemeteries, the airport, and plenty of coves where herds of dolphins played. We had parked our bikes at Captain Jack’s, one of the two restaurants.
I could smell that it was the kind of place that people came back to over and over again, for the biscuits, the onion rings, and the Thursday night meatloaf special. There were locals – fishermen, crunchy and old, minding their own business; a few day-trippers from Gainesville, binoculars in hand as they scouted for the manatees that liked to swim in the waters where the Suwanee merged with the ocean, and us. Betty, our waitress, was the oldest in the restaurant and met us with three waters in one hand, menus under her arm, and platter of food for the fishermen sitting nearby. Within minutes of ordering, we knew she was 72, had worked at Captain Jack’s since her youngest daughter went off to kindergarten, that daughter was now grown with a child of her own, and that grandchild is now in high school — quite a handful but a good child — not real smart, but with a good heart at the end of the day. Betty chatted with my girls each time she filled up our waters or brought our food, and she told a story of a family of mermaids that lived just beyond our vision where our table sat on the edge of the ocean – and we sat on the edge of our seats ordering dessert to hear the next part of the story.
I watched her; her feet never stopped despite the Ace bandage that wrapped her ankle poking through just below her black pants. (And I thought I was tired and deserved a break.) Just observing her command her post as she moved in and out of the kitchen shifted my perspective. Betty had earned her wrinkles. She was small in stature but her smile was big. I had this overwhelming feeling that I wanted to take care of her like she was taking care of us — but she had what money can’t buy: spunk. She didn’t need us; we needed her.
Fast forward 10 years, and I was trying to catch a commuter flight from New York City to Boston to meet my new man friend, where I would meet for the first time his family and a few of his childhood friends. I sat at Gate B-29, facing the window but at the edge of the larger opening to the last three gates. The airline had a hospitality table with free coffee, hosted by an older man and an older woman who looked like they had hijacked the red coats to be employees for the sake of good health care. The woman tried to engage travelers as they passed by, while the man stayed busy looking down and around. After observing her for sometime, and the travelers who ignored her on their way to stand in line at Starbucks, I couldn’t help but take up her offering of a weak cup of coffee in a Styrofoam cup. I stirred in my powdered creamer and listened to her complain about travelers ignoring her free coffee. She spoke with a slight accent, but with passion and presence. She had emigrated from Lake Cuomo, Italy years ago with her husband after the second war, she said. She spoke of the beauty of her village, the delicious food there, and I couldn’t help asking whether she regretted leaving. She looked me in the eye. “No,” she replied emphatically. “I have had the greatest adventure. I know love. I wish all could know true love. He’s a gem I tell you. A real gem.” I shook her hand. I wanted to hug her, but I was holding my coffee. Her name: Betty. She had changed it when she moved here to sound more American.
Five years later, my oldest and I were walking through a tiny Southern town, so small it doesn’t even have a stoplight. In search of inexpensive treasures, we popped in and out of the two or three stores advertising antiques and good junk. We bought red velvet cupcakes and tea at the local bakery; with cream cheese frosting still in the corners of our mouths, we entered the last junk store. The bell on the door tingled as we shut it. “Did you like them cupcakes?” asked a older woman, about 80, who sat on a stool behind the counter. “I made those myself just this morning.” Her hair was piled high on her head with two pencils holding her makeshift bun up, like an old schoolteacher. Arrayed in the case below her were earrings made by local artists. We looked diligently at each pair not only because they were pretty and priced well, but also because it gave us an excuse to chat with the lady — the mystery baker who’d created the most exquisite bits of Southern charm at five o’clock that morning — and didn’t even own the bakery. As she explained, she helps out the lady who owns it a couple of days a week, just for fun, and to give that lady a chance to sleep in with her husband…and if she had a husband, she hoped someone would do the same for her. Her name was Betty, and she had lived in that town most of her life. She doesn’t go much of anywhere, except over to Pell City to see her granddaughter when someone will drive her.
Betty’s stories, peppered with her wry humor, had us laughing so hard that we had tears in our eyes. She invited us to come bake with her up the street anytime; my daughter said it would be worth the drive just to feel her good energy. She wrote down her name and phone number on the back of the shop’s card: Betty, xxxx — because if you live in a town that small, you still only have to use four digits.
Each of these women was unassuming, but each had an aura of spunky grace that was simply irresistible. At the time, I just thought they were colorful characters, but I still think about them today. I know they were examples of zestful living. Clues. Guardrails. Hope. Each woman led me towards a bigger picture that couldn’t be captured in the vacation photos.
Perhaps there are angels, not the celestial kind with wings and halos (although maybe there are those as well), but human angels. We gain perspective observing grace in others; brief interactions or lasting friendships with women who lead us through the tunnel of life, always seeing the sunshine at the end — teaching us, preparing us for our turn when we may need to show a fellow friend the light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
Upon reflection, I seem to have an angel named Betty. Betty seemed to show up when I needed to learn to live with enthusiasm even when you’re tired, how to love when skeptical, and, when flattened from enormous grief, how to heal. My Bettys in the world are like colorful kites floating in the sky offering silver strings of hope, and when I hold on to each imaginary string, I feel connected to heaven.