I saw them the minute I entered the grocery store, standing there in the produce aisle. They were chatting with one of the young clerks, and I was caught by the sound of their laughter.
He was the one speaking, in a commanding, resonant voice, asking about the clerk’s parents, sharing a story with her. He was tall and thin, wearing black pants and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He had a shock of wonderfully disordered white hair, standing straight up on his head. His nose was longish, and he sported bushy white “Gandalf” eyebrows over his deepset, dark eyes.
She stood to one side, smiling and nodding, but not speaking. She was short, and plump, her iron grey hair worn in a long ponytail down her back. She wore a blue cotton skirt, sensible shoes and a beautiful embroidered peasant blouse. Something about her demeanor was just a bit “off”, and I found myself casting little looks her way as I made my way around them to the bin of red peppers.
Her face was round, and smooth, and she wore an unchanging, slightly unfocused smile throughout the conversation. The gentleman said goodbye to the clerk, who turned to the woman and said softly, “I hope you’ll come back to see me again.” The sweet smile didn’t falter as the older woman said, “Of course we will.”
I ran into them again two aisles over. They were walking toward me, and the man was carefully choosing items to put in his cart. He showed her a jar of something, and asked, “You like these, don’t you?” She looked up at him, then at me, shrugged and smiled. “Really, I don’t remember.” He patted her shoulder, said, “Yes. You do. We had them at the cookout.”
My heart and throat filled with sadness as I realized what I was seeing. How sad, for both of them! She couldn’t remember whether she liked something or not, and he was left to make those choices for her. I continued to shop, but was sorrowfully aware of them as we all meandered through the store.
A few minutes later, as I looked through the shelves of coffee, they came toward me once again. He was in the lead, and he made ferocious eye contact with me as he passed. He did not smile or acknowledge me in any way, but I heard his message loud and clear. I was careful not to show an ounce of pity or sadness as his lady came walking behind him. Unlike him, she smiled broadly when she saw me, her face a picture of peace and serenity. We exchanged “Good mornings”, and passed in opposite directions.
I saw them two more times while I was in the store. Once we were all gathered near the frozen foods, tempted by the array of ice creams. He was talking to his wife about flavors and brands. She looked my way with a bemused expression, smiled again, and shrugged. She was clearly confused, but didn’t seem to be particularly bothered by it.
And I saw them as I approached the cash register. He was pushing the carriage toward the door, all of the groceries bagged and ready to go. He reached out his right arm, drew her close with a hug around her waist. He kissed the top of her head, placed her hand in the bend of his elbow, and escorted her grandly into the parking lot.
They made me so very sad, at first. I had to be careful not to let my tears show as I met them each time. How tragic to face such loss, how awful for both of them.
But in thinking about them through this long summer afternoon, I have come to realize that I took the wrong lesson from my meeting with this devoted couple. Why should I be sad for two people who have achieved what every human being on earth wants? They have somehow found a love that has lifted them both above themselves, and they have found a partner for life. Neither of them is alone; she has him to protect her, to care for her, to keep her in the present. He has her to guard and to love and to remind him of his past.
This is the kind of devotion that I saw in my parents. It is what I wish for Paul and I to earn and to keep. It is what I wish for all of my children to find someday.
What a lucky, happy couple I saw in the grocery store this morning.