Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Lasting Impression

Today I met an 80-year-old war refugee with lipstick in her teeth.

I was walking back from the park near my house at a brisk pace. The old woman stepped out of her apartment building just as I was approaching it. Her gray hair was chin length and pinned back on one side. She wore peach-colored lipstick and a smile that I immediately returned. In that moment she quietly gasped. She said, very slowly:

Oh, how pretty you are!

Still walking, I turned to thank her. But she wasn’t finished.

“No, come here for a second, I just have to tell you something.”

I stepped back toward her. Then this lovely old woman delivered to me a quiet, measured, matter-of-fact declaration of admiration.

“You are so...”, she lifted her hands as though she were holding a vase by its sides, “…slender. You have the body of a model.”

I raised my eyebrows, amused by her opinion of my form, which at the time was rather indiscernible beneath a thick sweatshirt and sweatpants. She brushed away my thank you as if to say, I’m not looking for gratitude.

“No, no. You just are…how tall are you?”

“Five-seven? Somewhere around there?”

“Do you like to eat?”

I laughed. “I love to eat.”


She continued to survey my body. Then she asked me if I was a “Chicago girl.”

“No, I just moved here actually. About a month ago.”

“Where did you come from?”

I told her Minnesota, and she said Minnesota is a beautiful place. Yes, I agreed. It is beautiful.

She asked me if I had any gentleman callers. She used that exact phrase.

Then she asked where my family was. I told her they’re all in Minnesota, and she asked if I go back and forth between Chicago and Minnesota.

“A bit.”


“Well,” she said, and returned to her original discourse about my body, tracing again that imaginary vase with her hands. She said something about beauty, and her age, and how fast life goes by. Her sentences weren’t complete, or at least I don’t remember them to be, but I understood. I nodded along. Then:

“Is your family here with you?”

“No, my family is in Minnesota.”

“Oh. Do you go back and forth between the two places?”

“A bit, yeah.”

I told her I came here to take classes. What do you study? she asked.

I hesitated. “Comedy writing?”

She found this intriguing. So you’re very talented, she told me.

“We’ll see,” I smiled.

She asked me once again where my family was. I told her, then asked where she was from.

“I’m European,” she replied, as though letting me in on some sensational secret.

I figured as much from her accent. Where in Europe?



She had fled to the United States during World War II, when she was about 20 years old. Her mother was among the family she left behind.

“I never saw her again,” she told me.

My eyes filled immediately, and it caught me off guard. Maybe it was putting a face to what were normally faceless stories that affected me. Maybe it was the fact that she was about my age when she fled, and that made me imagine leaving my own mom for what would turn out to be a lifetime.

“If the war had never happened,” she said, “I would probably still be there.”

At first I thought she kept asking about my family because her memory was fading. Now I wonder if she simply didn’t understand why anyone would move away from their family when they didn’t have to.


Eventually another woman showed up. She looked younger than my new friend, and she wore thick glasses. She didn’t stick around to chat, but instead told the older woman that she’d head upstairs to “see what you need.”

“Well, I’m holding you up,” my friend said when the other woman had gone into the building. I just smiled. I wasn't anxious to leave.

As our meeting came to a close, I thought of asking for her name. But she never asked for my name, so, taking her cue, I figured maybe names aren't that important. I wish I had now, though, mainly so I could refer to her by name instead of as "the woman."

She left me with a reiteration of her opening remarks, and then added that her friend has a son about my age with big muscles.

I laughed again. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

I told her it was nice talking to her, and I meant it. When our conversation began, I had wondered if this dear woman had snatched up the first friendly face she saw for want of someone, anyone, to talk to. But I think I got more out of our interaction than she did, and I walked away from her with a tinge of reluctance.


My world is small. I think that’s true for most of us, even those who make conscious efforts to expand. It’s not easy, and when more pressing objectives like making rent or paying for school or supporting a family take priority, there’s not always time. But over the past few months I’ve come to believe that one of the easiest ways to gain insight and perspective is to talk to those who have simply been around longer than I have.

Today, an afternoon walk led me to a person who made an impression on me. I feel very lucky that this woman was there to pull me from my world; I was in the right place at the right time. Part of it may be happenstance, but it also has to do with frame of mind. I don’t think personal transformation is possible when you assume that you’re doing someone a favor by talking to them.

What would it be like if we all assumed just the opposite?

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