I’d seen her for months in my Oakland hills neighborhood. In her ill-fitting reflective safety vest near Safeway where I bought the Lunchables my two children craved. In her bifocals in front of the post office. In her huge straw hat trimmed with faux jewels in front of Rite Aid as I hurried through buying school supplies. She was always smiling. Always walking slowly, cane in one hand, long unopened umbrella in the other to steady herself.
I was always sad and anxious. Always newly widowed.
One day she asked me for a ride. Higher and higher we drove. Monterey pines, coastal oaks, wild turkeys. She told me to stop on a narrow street: a few houses, woods. “I’m over there.” She gestured vaguely. “No need to get me to my door.” She insisted I drive away.
I didn’t think much about her after that first ride. Then there was a second ride, a third. More. She loved to talk. Her poorly fitted dentures rattled. The sun glistened off the white hairs on her chin. I found myself jotting down her words after I dropped her off.
“I never did learn to drive. My husband, he said, ‘Mary, I’ll take you wherever you want to go.’ I did think, what about when you die? He died on his seventy-eighth birthday. He had a heart attack.”
My husband jumped off the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
Mary was grateful for the rides. I was grateful to listen and not think. “You’re an angel,” she said repeatedly. Sometimes when I saw her, I hid. Too busy, stressed, exhausted. Long commute to work, endless appointments with therapists and lawyers and teachers, endless confusion over bills and bank accountants and insurance. Endless attempts to comfort my children.
I drove Mary to the same spot each time, unbuckled her seat belt, and helped her out of the car. She told me to drive away. Immediately. I’d linger to make sure she took some steps without falling but she’d wave me off. She said she lived with her son, daughter-in-law, and ornery grandson. He drove her husband’s car. She paid for gas. But he complained about driving her places so she stopped asking. Her daughter and husband were busy working and playing golf. “I don’t want to get kicked out,” she said. “I never complain.”
I tried not to complain about my life. Tried not to stare at the stove. 5:00 am. Leaving for work. But that stove. What if I’d left the burner on accidentally? I hear flames crackle, smell smoke filling my children’s rooms, imagine my fifteen-year-old trying to protect her little brother. I check and recheck that stove. Begin to drive to work, dread pooling in my chest. Drive home, the four black eyes of the burners staring at me.
Mary talked a lot about her past—forty years door-to-door selling Watkins products, bossy mother-in-law who lived with Mary and her husband. They built her an apartment in the back, but still she’d show up early in the morning. Mary acted out their conversations:
“I’m still asleep! What’re you here so early for?”
“I need to take a bath.”
“You’ve got a brand-new bathroom.”
“The tub don’t work.”
When her mother-in-law had a stroke, Mary cared for her at home. When her husband couldn’t manage a steady job, Mary knocked on more doors, sold more Watkins products.
Now she was old. Late 80’s? 90’s? Her constant smile: how much was genuine? How much the knowledge that people would more willingly help a cheerful woman? She mentioned breast cancer and glaucoma only in passing.
“I’ve got to get out,” she said often. “I’d go nuts just sitting around. At least I’ve got all my marbles.”
Did she even have a home and family? Those woods across the street, her shabby appearance, her insistence I leave upon dropping her off. . . Still there she was, moving through her day, the thrum of living as insistent as cicadas’ calls.
Then she vanished. I’d probably driven Mary twenty times over many months, heard stories about her family and her cranky or kind customers, such as the woman who invited her in, serving her warm coffee cake.
The last time I saw Mary I hid. For months after that, I tried to spot her.
Someone is here. Then they are gone.
© Claudia Monpere
[This piece was selected by Sara Crowley. Read Claudia’s interview]