In the world we live in now, there is so much hustle and bustle and reasons to guard your safety and personal space, that making eye contact with strangers or even speaking to them has become all but nonexistent. We humans have become "ships that pass in the night" as we struggle daily from Point A to Point B.
But every now and then, in a blue moon... something changes the path of two ships. They find themselves on a collision course and drop anchor, because something unknown prevents them from steering around each other.
What that something is remains a mystery. But oftentimes, I am glad for it.
I was cautiously hurrying inside my local Kroger late one night for some quick grocery shopping, and was grabbing a buggy at the same time an elderly woman was. We caught each other's eyes and murmured the usual cursory "Hello..." But instead of immediately turning away, her mouth split in an infectious grin and her aged eyes began to twinkle.
I couldn't help grinning back; she looked quite the character with her long, straw-like hair flung out around her shoulders, her pale pink lipstick, the thin cheetah fur (faux?) coat enveloping her frail body against the chill, and her thick Russian accent. The age spots and wrinkles running the length of her pallid face and hands held the promise of unimaginable stories. I didn't want to move away from her, for whatever reason. So I didn't. I felt I was where I needed to be. For the moment.
I cannot remember exactly how our conversation started. Something along the lines of my name is, how have you been doing today and what are you doing out here so late and yes, we are nuts LOL to my dad needs fresh fruit for his breakfast and yes, I'm out of fruit, too to lamenting together over the rigors of getting older and why the heck is our world going to hell in a hand basket this year.
I also don't remember exactly when we ended up sitting on a bench, me with my legs crossed, her with her legs folded beneath her. I do remember the odd looks we got from shoppers and employees as they came and went, and came and went, while we sat there as if we were best of friends with all the time in the world.
(I must admit that at one point, I suddenly wondered, "What the hell am I doing?" and peered around us to see if she was some kind of decoy for ne'er-do-wells in hiding. But, nope. My personal space has its own very sensitive ADT security system, so when the alarm isn't set off, that means something.)
My heart hurt when she spoke about how what Russian president Vladamir Putin is doing to Ukraine and Crimea nowadays has brought back horrible childhood memories for her. She grew up in Crimea during World War II and the various Crimean sieges, and as a little girl was constantly trying to survive in the middle of Soviet Union, German, and Romanian hostilities. During a siege one day, her father was taken, transported out of the country and jailed. Not long after that, she saw a story about his execution in the local newspaper. Whether it was true or not, she's never known. She never saw her father again, and has no grave to visit.
The fear, the hiding, the hunger, the anger, and the sorrow of it all is still fresh, even in her 80s. She certainly has no love for Putin. "He thinks he is Stalin. Why does he do this?"
We shared a lot of laughter, too. She hung on to every word of the personal stories I shared, and insisted on seeing every single picture and video I had on my phone of my grandkid. LOL!
After about an HOUR, we found our ever-loving minds and realized we needed to get to our Krogering and get the heck out of there. (My brother was blowing my phone up by then. He just knew that some bloodthirsty gang members had absconded with me for a lark.) I knew she was completely alone in the world with no family and had been for a long time. Knowing we lived in the same suburb wasn't enough. I wanted her cell number so I could at least check on "Ms. Independent" every now and then. She was fearful of that, though (I don't blame her) but agreed to take mine. We hugged, lectured each other about being safe, and went our separate ways.
I think about her often, and I send up little prayers in the hopes that she's doing okay. She's never called me, but then I didn't expect her to, really. Let's face it -- she doesn't know me from Adam, and one group that gets preyed on constantly in this country is the elderly.
I'll never forget you, Ms. Maria Sophia. I don't know why you were compelled to share such personal pages from your life with me, a total stranger, but I'm glad you did. I may never know how it has changed me, but I'm sure it has. For the better.
POSTSCRIPT: Last Friday, the grandkid and I ran smack-dab into Ms. Maria Sophia at Kroger! We had a nice little five-minute catch up chat, because I had to get the grandkid home.
It was wonderful grasping that warm, wrinkled hand, hearing that infectious laugh, and getting an earful of the latest health tips she'd discovered. Even my grandson, who's one and a half and painfully shy with strangers, participated in a three-way hug and gave her a little wave when she told him, "Bye bye, baby."
Truth told, I think he just wanted to take a spin on her shopping scooter. :)