Familiar Faces

One of the interesting things about living in one place for a long time is the way that the faces around you change with the passage of time.

Of course, the people I see every day have aged along with me in the nearly 25 years since we moved to this little town.  I don’t really notice the changes in their faces.  When I look at my friends, I see the person, not the skin or the hair or the shape.

But once in a while I see someone that I once knew slightly, someone I may have chatted with once or twice, but haven’t seen in a long time.  Seeing the changes of time in those faces is like watching time lapsed photography of my own life.  I’ll give you an example.

I used to shop at a grocery store in the town to our south.  Every week I would push my cart, often with my children along for the trip, up and down the aisles of that store.  I would smile at other Moms and chat with the cashiers and baggers. We weren’t friends, but we recognized each other. Familiar faces. If I saw one of them at the local library or coffee shop, we’d greet each other and wave.  Passing acquaintances, right?

Then a new store opened, in the town to our north, and I took my shopping that way. For years now, I have gone to the new store, and have come to recognize new faces. I have lost track of those older acquaintances.

Last week, I stopped in at the old store, to our south. My daughter lives near there, and I was at her house. I stopped by the store for a few things, and I saw some of those once so familiar faces.

One was a man who I know to be at least ten years younger than I am.  When I met him, my daughter was only a little one, sitting in the seat of my grocery cart.   He was tall, thin, dark haired. He smiled a lopsided smile as he bagged my groceries. He told me that he and his girlfriend had just had a baby girl themselves.  I could tell from the words that he chose and the way that he strung them together that he was a young man with some cognitive challenges.  But he was bright eyed, cheerful, charming my little one and myself.  I tried to connect with him every week.  I liked him. His good humor and friendly chatter always made my kids and I grin. He was a friendly, familiar presence in our lives.

And the years rolled by.  I stopped seeing him, and forgot about those gentle interactions.

I saw the man again the other evening, still bagging groceries where he’s been for at least the past 25 years.  His shoulders were stooped. His hair, thin and lank, is pure white now.  His eyes, the ones that used to sparkle with pleasure as he talked with pride about his little girl, were dull and blank. He didn’t speak to anyone as he carefully placed each item in the bags. His jaw was slack, and I could see that he had lost several of his teeth.

It was a shock. I wanted to ask him, “Do you remember me? You used to talk to my kids every week.” I wanted to ask him about his daughter.  But the years had clearly not been as good to him as they might have been. I smiled at him when it was my turn at the register.  He looked blankly back at me.  I chatted with the young cashier, thinking that she was just about the same age that the man had been when we’d met.  I thanked the man as I took my carriage, but he didn’t answer.  He had already turned his empty eyes to the next order, and had begun to carefully put each item into a bag.

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