The Magic in a Stranger’s Heart
Cathy and I, the past few years, have been opening our home on Thanksgiving Day, providing a welcome table to anyone who might need a place to go. Of course, we’re disappointed that the pandemic has made that impossible this year, but our gathering’s loss is a small price to pay for the sake of everyone’s health. Still, I’ve been thinking quite often of those who will have to spend this Thanksgiving alone.
There’s a woman who works as a cashier at our local grocery store. I’d guess she must be near seventy years old. She has a nest of dyed blond hair, red lipstick, and a penchant for engaging in conversation with the customers in her checkout line. Her name is Lou.
Cathy and I actually first knew her by her voice before we ever saw her. When we started going to this store, the in-store promotions broadcast over the public address system often amused and delighted us. The woman doing them—Lou—was just so gosh-darned positive, overwhelmed with awe, it seemed, over the wonderful sales available that day. “Welcome, shoppers,” she’d say. “We have a fantastic deal on. . . .” You fill in the blank. Even if you didn’t come to the store for whatever item she was pushing, this woman made you feel like you just had to have it. I swear she could sell sawdust to a lumber mill.
When Cathy and I finally connected the friendly woman at the cash register with the voice over the public address system, we went through her checkout line whenever possible.
One day, Cathy told her how much we enjoyed her promotional announcements. “I just love doing those,” Lou said.
That’s how Cathy started making small talk with her. “Oh, that’s such a good deal on sweet potatoes,” Lou might say, scanning our purchase, and off she and Cathy would go on memories of sweet potatoes prepared for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners.
I tend to be less outgoing with strangers, so I was content to let Cathy take the lead and to enjoy her conversations with Lou from the sidelines. They made me feel like I was back in the small-town markets of my youth where everyone knew the cashier and everyone’s lives were connected. That social fabric was something I’d always missed in the larger cities where I’d lived.
One day, during the early surge of COVID-19, Cathy asked Lou if she had family. She told us her husband was in a nursing home, and she hadn’t been able to visit him because of the virus. As the weeks went on, we’d sometimes ask her how her husband was doing. “About the same,” she’d say.
When we moved on into the summer and we started to flatten the curve of the virus, our governor eased our restrictions. Lou was finally able to see her husband, and one day, she reported to us that he knew her and was glad to see her. Cathy and I told her how happy we were to hear it. We only had a few minutes with her each time we went through her line, but in those few minutes something important happened. That something was the magic of our hearts expanding.
We need that more than ever now, an association with people we might not ordinarily take the time to know. In this time of pandemic, such connections can sustain us.
For several weeks, for whatever reason, we didn’t see Lou. Then one day, there she was.
“How’s your husband?” Cathy asked.
I could see the sadness in Lou’s eyes above her face mask. “He died,” she said.
It was his heart, she said. One minute, he was there, and the next minute he wasn’t.
How sorry, we were, Cathy and I both said. How very, very sorry.
Then today, Cathy and I are in the store, and a voice comes over the public address system, and it’s Lou, and she says, “Welcome, shoppers! Today we have a special on sugar cookies. A package for $3.99. That’s discounted from the usual $6.99. Now that’s a bargain no one should resist!”
Nor can we, nor should we. Let it fill us, the spirited voice of this woman who in the midst of our once again surging pandemic—who in the wake of her husband’s death—picks up the microphone and shills sugar cookies as if they’re the vaccine we’re all waiting for. This woman, who in spite of everything, remembers—and reminds us here at Thanksgiving—what it is to love.
Copyright © 2020 Lee Martin
Lee Martin is the author of six novels, including The Bright Forever, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, and the recently released, Yours, Jean. He teaches in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University.