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Role Model in The Supermarket

We met at the cottage cheese. I lived on cottage cheese these days—a dietary stab at reclaiming my body of twenty years ago.

As we touched elbows, she peered into the refrigerated case. “Where’s the sour cream? I need the smallest—smallest—sour cream!” She glanced at me with pleading eyes.

I bent to search, arm chilly in the low cold.

Without preamble, she burst out, “I’m 88. It’s awful. I can hardly see, can’t do anything. I can’t even have know.” Her thin lips rose in a sly smile, teeth long and awry. I was surprised she thought of sex at her age.

“But no man would want me now.” She waved a frail, self-deprecating hand and then changed subjects.

“My family—all those ridiculously young nieces and nephews—they’re coming over Sunday, and I want to make that sour cream dressing they like. I hate being the matriarch, but everyone else has died. I’ve lost so many. And have to feed my cats too.” Abruptly, she changed direction. “You’re so sweet to help.”

I was used to following such fragmented thoughts. Here in Florida, the refuge of the retired, I often helped older people—reading a label, holding a door, finding a price or product.

Helping them made me feel young, vital, full of energy. I walked especially briskly, got perky haircuts, and wore low-cut jeans and plunging-neckline knit tops. I watched the lines on everyone else’s faces deepen—and I lived on cottage cheese. Where was that low-fat carton?

She gripped my arm. “Where’s the sour cream? I can hardly see.”

I turned toward her. She had a skeletal face, accented by threads of brown-gray hair pulled back behind her ears. Her skin was crosshatched but tight, straining to cover what it had to. Her small eyes, although watery, darted sharply, and, despite her disclaimer, I was sure missed nothing. Her faded tiny-flower print dress, decades old, I was sure, hung on her frame, and her arms were twig branches. At her touch, I felt the bone of her finger.

I reached toward the cartons. “Here it is. Do you want regular or low-fat?”

“At my age?” She laughed, wheezing slightly. “Do you think I care?”

And here I was, valiantly cottage cheesing.

I picked up a container—full-fat—and handed it to her. She put it in her basket and stopped, looking me up and down.

”You’ve kept your figure. With your flat stomach and cute little ass in your jeans. You’re . . .” she leaned nearer, almost touching my nose with hers, “you’re adorable!”

Shocked, I giggled in reflex.

“And you have beautiful teeth! What a smile!”

I smiled broadly and thanked her. “You’re pretty terrific yourself,” I said, meaning it.

“Oh, no! I’m used up and thrown away. At 65, they got rid of me. And I was so bright.”

“What did you do?”

She formed the words proudly. “I’m a Ph.D. I was professor of descriptive and inferential quantitative statistics.”

Wow, I thought. “Where?”

“At Mercy American College, Washington, DC. But that’s the ivory tower—ha! They love you one minute and throw you away the next. Yes—“she poked an emphatic twig finger at my eyes— “I’m Doctor Althea Hunsecker.”

In this budding camaraderie, I wondered if I should tell her about my own doctorate and academic consulting, and even about my articles and fiction writing. But I was silent. it was her moment. “Fantastic,” I said.

“Oh sure,” she replied, “what good does it all do me now? I can’t do anything anymore, got no friends, can’t get out. I live only a block away, in a condo—and I hate it. The balconies are rusting. Always had my own home, and with a garden—“she spread her hands as if nurturing flowers—“but my last husband left me that place.” Her lips curled down.

I started to praise her independent living, but she stepped closer and whispered, “He was, you know, seeing someone. Bought a home for that tart, and I get this beat-up condo with no garden.”

In all the high-rises in the area, many people cultivated flowers, trees, almost jungles on their terraces. Should I suggest it? I kept silent.

She jumped to another subject. “Men are treacherous! He was jealous of my doctorate and my smart friends. I married him on the bounder—what do you call it—after my real husband died. Never should have. I hope you have a good man.”

I thought of my blessedly supportive, non-degreed husband. “I do,” I said, ready to tell more.

As I opened my mouth, she kept going, veering again. “Call me Miss Althea, dear.”

I bowed with a flourish, laughing and as if announcing her to the court. “Miss Althea.”

She smiled, the skin across her cheeks stretching like sun-baked canvas. Then she resumed. “I can’t get a job. No one will hire me at this age. Can’t even read anymore.”

I said, “What about a senior center? People there will read to you, whatever you want.” And immediately regretted saying this, almost ready for her response.

She made a hissing sound. “Tried it once. I’m so far above those people—they’re dolts. Nothing at all in common. All they talk about is grandchildren and doctors and their medicines. Like it’s a contest who takes the most.”

I asked, “How about adult education courses? The local colleges have classes in archeology, literature, history, everything, and by well-known, smart lecturers.”

“I couldn’t. Don’t drive. Don’t want go out alone at night.” She leaned closer, and I could smell her breath.

“There are rapists out there, you know.”

I knew that most of the courses were held in the afternoons, and people often went together in one car.

One of the colleges even had a shuttle bus.

She added quickly, “But I help at church. I volunteer for Father. I’m a good Catholic.”

“That’s good,” I said. “It helps to get out among people.” At least she hadn’t given up completely.

“But, you know, I can only do so much.” She touched a finger to her eye. “I wish the Lord would take me. I’m ready. I wouldn’t force it—you know what I mean—but I’m ready.”

I nodded, thinking of my copious current projects, stacks of scribbled-note writing plans, and incessant promises to myself. I could never imagine being ready.

She swerved again. “You’re so cute and helpful, so kind. Now take care of yourself, you hear. Keep that figure. So you won’t be alone, like me.”

I thanked her sincerely and held up one of my five low-fat cartons of panacea. To my shock, she suddenly seized my hand and kissed it.

We locked into each other’s faces, connecting across the years. Unthinking, I reached out and hugged her, my arms circling her bony frame with care.

Then, as abruptly as she had begun talking, she turned away and headed for the checkout. I pushed my cart to the lettuces.

For a moment, I wanted to run after her and walk her home, become her friend. I could take her to the senior center or classes. I could visit her condo and help her put in planters of flowers. I could make her tea and get her to laugh.

I knew, though, that if I became friends with her—if she even let me—she’d become dependent and want more and more time. I of course had my husband and needed my own time too. The whole scene spun out—after a few visits I’d have to tell her I couldn’t meet anymore because of my obligations. She’d at first look stunned, then puzzled, and then get fiercely angry. And she’d unleash a long diatribe (“You’re like all the rest. I shouldn’t have been fooled by your sweetness! Can’t trust anyone! Get out, get out!”) And she’d collapse on the sofa, sobbing as I crept out the door. And I’d feel horrible for days.

But instead, I wheeled to the watercress.

Couldn’t get her out of my mind, though. The world—her university, her husband, her relatives, other people, everything in her neighborhood—had done her wrong. Nothing anyone said or did could make it right. Yet her energy and animation—and indignation—belied this self-defeatism. I marveled at her persistence to please her relatives. And at her references to sex. And her exclamations about my appearance.

I sighed, glad for the encounter but regretful because I knew our meeting could never go anywhere.

Yet, Miss Althea taught me. Partly from interest, partly from self-preservation, partly from self-encouragement, I keep a mental collection of musicians, artists, professors, and writers who continue to create unabated through mounting decades. Now I add another role model, paradoxical as Miss Althea was. Passion still surges through her disparagements and keeps her interested in life. Miss Althea, with all her vivacious complaints, reminds me, however time has clawed my face and thinned my bones, to live a long, glorious, creative life.


Author, editor, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne, PhD, has published over 700 pieces in literary and academic venues. Her handbook, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation, addresses doctoral candidates’ nonacademic difficulties. In Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams, Noelle helps readers reach their lifelong yearnings.

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