Ever notice how the best lessons often come from unexpected sources? I learned that when I met a women who appeared to offer only an empty seat in her breakfast booth.
That New York day, my mirror had revealed more gray hair. I was feeling old as my young teens, Jay and Holly, and I left for our favorite cafe.
The counter stools were occupied first, so we usually sat in a booth. But that morning even those were filled. We waited by the door.
Suddenly, an elderly woman in the back waved at us. After our move from Michigan, we’d learned New Yorkers readily share space, so the invitation wasn’t unusual.
We smiled and walked toward the woman. Holly slid into the booth next to her; Jay and I sat across from them. I thanked the woman and made introductions.
She pointed to her ear and shook her head. Oh, she’s deaf, I thought.
We three sat silently while our hostess continued breakfast. Her arthritic hands cut poached egg on toast as I stared at my own hands, knowing they would look like hers someday.
I forced my thoughts to other details. The collar of the woman’s navy blue dress peeked over her buttoned maroon sweater. Her hair was silver and covered by a bright blue cap. What color had her hair been? Nondescript brunette like mine?
Had her swollen hands once held babies who grew up and left for exotic places, remembering her only at Christmas and Mother’s Day, if then? Had those same hands tenderly caressed the forehead of an ill husband who died, leaving her to grow old alone?
My self-pity continued as the woman put her knife and fork across the plate. She drank the last of her coffee, then leaned toward Holly. “Why do you go to bed at night?” she asked.
Because we had assumed she was mute as well as deaf, her question startled us. Finally Holly answered, “Because I’m tired?”
The woman’s eyes sparkled. “Because the bed won’t come to you!”
As we three chuckled, she tapped the table in front of Jay. “If I put a quarter and a five-cent piece here, and the five-cent piece rolled off, why didn’t the quarter roll off, too?”
At Jay’s puzzled look, the woman smiled. “Because the quarter has more sense!”
Her play on words made us laugh. We waited for another riddle, but she busied herself gathering her newspaper and purse. Holly stood to let her out of the booth.
She smiled at me, patted Holly’s shoulder, shook Jay’s hand and was off, her head up and her shoulders straightened—momentarily, at least—against the day.
That dear woman had provided unexpected joy. In those few moments, I’d seen no self-pity, no laments for what she had lost. She merely shared her private joy and had shown me a more noble way to face challenges.
As I smiled at her memory, I accepted my graying hair merely as another milestone.
When I’m her age, I told myself, I hope I’m teaching others to grab today’s joy. For now, though, I’ll concentrate on what I have left instead of what I’ve lost.
That’s not a bad lesson to have learned on a grumpy morning, is it?