THE OLDEST LADY
By Alicia Beckwith
I often see the likeness of people gone on to their reward. Folks like my parents, my beloved husband, and friends. I’m sure you’ve experienced the same thing, the familiar head in front of you in the store. You know it’s not true, but, part of you hopes it is.
After my mother died, I felt a deep loss. She and dad had adopted me, giving me a wonderful start in life. One day after work at the hospital on a spring day, I went shopping at my favorite store. I had to get some things for my twin boys. I was on the escalator when I looked up and saw the back of the head of a woman about my mom’s height. I felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I took the few steps to get closer to this lady. She even had on a brown coat like mom’s. Inside I knew it couldn’t be her, but I just couldn’t help myself. I made up my mind I was going to ask her if she knew what floor toys were on when I caught up with her. Just to double check that it wasn’t her!
When we alighted from the last step, I quickly moved alongside this person, then passed her. Making believe I was looking at something on the counter, I looked up at the woman as she passed me.
Of course it wasn’t Mom. I had so wanted it to be her, even against all those odds. What a letdown.
It’s happened to me several other times, including with a close friend of mine, Dr. Bryant. Again, it wasn’t him.
Well, I still keep looking. I’m not sure why. A little part of me wants to find someone who ‘beat the odds’.
One day, a distinguished lady in squat heals and a pretty gray blue suit made eye contact with me as she approached. At first I thought I knew her, but upon closer inspection, I was wrong. Yet, she came right up to me. Her soft blonde hair curled at the edge of her face.
“Alicia, don’t you remember me? I’m Cindy and Sandy’s mother.”
It took me a moment to study the lady’s face and respond, “Oh my gosh! Mrs. Barnes! I almost didn’t recognize you. It’s been a long time! I haven’t seen you since Cindy, Sandy and I were in high school. Gee! That’s been twenty years. You haven’t changed a bit! You’re still as pretty as when I last saw you. How do you do it?”
“Thank you, dear. I’ve thought about you often. You and my girls played together. They’re married now with their own children. My how they grow. Do you have a family?”
“Yes, I have two boys. How’s your husband?”
“He died this year, a couple of months ago. I miss him terribly.” Her face changed to one of sadness as she talked about his passing. She pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at a tear that had started down her cheek.
“I hadn’t heard. I’m so sorry for your loss. It must be hard for you. Please tell the girls for me that I’m sorry. I haven’t been in touch with them over the years.”
“I will. It was so nice to see you.”
“Yes, I’m glad we bumped into each other.”
We bade each other goodbye. When I turned to go, I thought about how she must be close to my mom’s age. Whatever she’s doing, it sure is working for her. I sure could use some of that!
About a week later I received a phone call from Sandy Barnes, now Noble. We shared pleasantries before her tone changed.
“I wonder if we could meet for coffee sometime. I’d like to talk with you about something personal.”
I wondered what it could be as we hadn’t kept in touch for years. My curiosity got the best of me, and I wanted to help if I could. “Sure, I’d be glad to.” We settled on a place and time.
When the appointed day arrived, I decided on a blue sweater and grey slacks along with the necklace I usually wear. I’d had it designed specially. I had them take my ring and my deceased husband, Al’s wedding ring and make them into one. It made me feel as if he were still with me. A last look in the mirror told me I was all set to go.
Sure enough, Sandy came in the door of the restaurant and looked around. I held up my hand and waved. I noticed she had on a light beige coat to protect her against the spring wind. She came right over. I stood up and gave her a hug. When we sat back down, the waitress, Alona, came right over and took our order.
“Sandy, you look great,” I said.
“Thanks. So do you,” Sandy added.
Light chitchat filled the time before coffee arrived. We sat quietly and sipped our beverage. She looked at me with tears in her eyes.
“What’s wrong, Sandy? What can I do?”
“Alicia, I don’t know where to start.” She remained thoughtful for a couple of moments, then began an unbelievable story.
“I know this sounds too incredible, but it’s really true.” The hesitated.
I didn’t want to rush her or interrupt her train of thought so I remained quiet, watching her.
She began again. “I guess I noticed something wasn’t quite right when I was in my teens, you know, in high school, but I never told anyone. I mean mother never seemed to age at all. She remained just as beautiful then as she is now. But,” she stopped a moment. “I knew that just couldn’t be true. But, it was!”
“It’s all very odd.”
“Then, one day, Mother asked me to bring something to her from her closet. I came across a box of old photos on the closet floor. It really was just an accident. I wasn’t snooping. She’d asked me to find something for her, hadn’t she?”
“What happened then?” I prodded.
“When I asked her about it, she became all flustered and then defensive.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“She accused me of being sneaky and snooping in her private things. I told her I did what she’d asked me to.”
“What did she say?”
“She apologized, but remained cool the rest of the day. I waited, but she never told me about the pictures I’d asked about. Honestly, Alicia, it shakes me to the core when I think back on it.”
“Because they were family photos, but NOT OUR FAMILY!”
“Yes! They were photos of her with another man and other children. The cars looked much older than the ones from our childhood. It’s almost as if she had a twin or a look-alike older sister in those photos! And I saw an old obituary, too!”
“It’s too bad she wouldn’t talk about it, Sandy. I wonder why not?”
“I’d sure like to know!”
Our order came and we sat quietly as we ate our lunch.
We pushed our plates to the side for the waitress to pick up. I asked, “What are you going to do?”
“I’m not really sure yet. I thought of bringing the box down and confronting her with it, but I’m just not sure what she’d do.”
“Nothing gained, nothing lost.”
“I know. I just don’t want to turn her against me now that Dad’s gone. She, my sister and I still are a family. I’d hate to lose them.”
“But, you’re in a quandary then. I wonder if you could bring it up sometime when you could get her talking about your dad.”
“I could try, I suppose. I guess I wouldn’t have anything to lose. I wonder what she’ll tell me. In a way I think it’s rather frightening to know she hasn’t aged a bit. I just don’t understand it. Then I have to ask myself ‘Who the heck are those other people in the photos?’”
“I don’t blame you. I can’t imagine what she’ll tell you. If it happens, I’ll be here for you no matter what.”
“Thanks.” Sandy looked down before speaking again. “I’ll try to get her talking the next chance I get. I can’t let this fester in me any longer. I just have to know.”
We paid for our lunch, gave each other a hug and turned to go to our cars. When I got in, I just sat there and couldn’t get her out of my mind. Nor could I get the fact of Mrs. Barnes’ perpetual beauty out of my head. I said a quick prayer for Sandy before I started for home.
Alicia Beckwith is a local poet and has been writing poetry for four decades. Her poems have been published in book collections and magazines.