I spent most of my Tuesday travelling from Hamilton, New Jersey to Greenville, South Carolina. My journey, which lasted from 6am to 2:30pm, had its share of interesting moments. I just made my NJTransit train which was taking me to Newark Liberty station, apparently it was Slow Motion Day at the Newark Liberty security check-in area, and the guy sitting in front of me on the first leg of my air travel farted so much and so often that he was most likely the cause of the brush fires that tore up the North East Corridor this morning/afternoon. It was disgusting.
It wasn’t until I began the second leg of my air travel (from Atlanta to Greenville) that my highlight began. It was on this 45-minute flight that I met Emma. Who would have thought that a 45-minute conversation with this woman would inspire so much inside of me?
How It Began
I was one of the last people to board the plane. I was taking my time because I found an awesome food joint called The Varsity – a joint whose food resulted in me savoring every second of the triple-decker burger they convinced me to buy via their generic picture next to fries and a drink. (Hey, sometimes that’s all it takes.)
When I boarded the plane I was stuffed, and as usual, didn’t want to talk to single person unless it was an emergency situation, or if they happened to be curious about the height and speed of some of the most popular American rollercoasters.
My seat was 19A. The plane was about the size of my fingernail, and only had 20 rows of seats… aka, I was sitting the very back of a bus with wings. As I awkwardly worked my way to the back of the plane, I see an old, light-skinned woman sitting in 19B. I felt bad because I definitely had and wanted the window seat, and I wasn’t going to climb over her, so we both knew that she had to get up and scooch on out of my way – all so I can take a good Snapchat of my plane taking off or something. (You know, “priorities”.)
She had trouble standing up, and I immediately felt bad for asking her to get out of my way simply so my weird-ass self could get a good Snapchat angle of the airplane. But alas, she moved with the help of her cane, and I took my seat.
As soon as I sat down, she began striking up a conversation, telling me how she was travelling from Cleveland to Greenville. I knew immediately that she was a “talker” and that if I didn’t stop her, she’d be annoying the whole time. But as she continued to tell me about her travels… I don’t know… within 2-minutes of her talking (without me saying a word yet), I just felt a warmth and comfort that I haven’t felt in a long time. Within 2-minutes, I went from figuring out how I can subtly put in my ear buds (the official signal for “leave me alone, please”) to wanting to know more about her life.
Emma is 78-years-old and currently resides in Cleveland, though she spent some of her early life in South Carolina. Emma comes from a really big family. She is one of nine children, she has four children of her own, and multiple grandchildren. To say she is a proud family woman would be an understatement.
What struck me the most about Emma was that she was no stranger to losing loved ones. Her mother passed away when she was only ten-years-old, one of her daughters passed away at 33-years-old, her husband passed away (after 50+ years of marriage) in 2010, and she has also had a couple siblings pass away as well.
“It’s hard.” She said with a voice as frail as you’d expect it to be. “That’s why I talk so much. It helps keep my mind from wondering too much. It helps me from always thinking about the people I’ve lost.”
It was at this point that I pleaded with myself, “No! No! No! I will NOT cry in the middle of an airplane!”
I put on a brave, though concerned face as if the enormity of her words didn’t really affect me. But she looked me right in the eyes and I could tell that she could see right through me. She continued to talk, and I continued to put on a brave face while also straining to hear everything she said. (It was a small, very loud plane.)
Today, she takes care of her 21-year-old grandchild. Her daughter’s son, the one that passed away. He lives with her and helps around the house as much as possible, but he’s 21-years-old and wants to go out and do what 21-year-olds like to do in the 21st century. “Him and his bad self.” She exclaimed a couple times while showing me pictures.
Through all the stories of death that she told me, she didn’t break one sweat or shed one tear. It’s as if she accepted that death is just a part of life, more so than anyone I’ve ever met in my life. She’s been around so much of it that she couldn’t let it bring her down. But the one moment that she seemed the most upset was when she told me about her leather photo album.
The Leather Photo Album
Through all of the conversations that we had during our flight, the story about the leather photo album seemed to garnish the most emotion from her. This photo album was full of pictures of family members and friends throughout her entire life. Her children, her grandchildren, her husband, her siblings, her mother, her father… tons of pictures that aren’t on Facebook, Instagram, or any other sort of digital storage center. These were just physical pictures that encompassed an entire woman’s life. It was all she had, and all she ever wanted.
One day, she hired some men to come over and do some work around the house – the same house she and her husband lived in for their entire married life. She was expecting only one man to come, but two more came.
The men came, did the work, got paid, and decided to take a token with them – her leather photo album.
Why they took it? She doesn’t know. She’ll never know. But it’s gone now and I couldn’t help but think that she somehow blamed herself, as if those asshole thieves didn’t deserve any blame. “Don’t blame yourself,” is what I wanted to say, but I didn’t say that out loud. I couldn’t muster up the courage to interrupt or be the catalyst for an older woman crying because of my inevitable poor choice of words.
With Emma, for every sad story she told, there were ten happy ones. Particularly the stories she would tell about her husband.
She loved her husband so much. When she was 18, he was 23 and asked her to marry him. “Do you really want to do this?” she asked him. “I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life.” He responded.
(Cue my “brave face” again.)
For about 20 minutes, I quizzed her about her husband, and she proudly told story after story about their adventures. I asked how she knew he was the one and she responded, “I knew because I realized that he cared about me just as much as I cared about him. I just knew.”
It was at this point that she asked me the dreaded question that I could sense coming from a mile away:
“Do you have a girl back home?”
Her Advice to Me
The final ten minutes of our flight was spent speaking about my love life – who I’ve dated, why I’m single, whether I’m interested in anyone… the whole shabang. She asked me all of the typical questions that a normal grandmother would ask… and I answered them. Not only did I answer them, but I answered them truthfully, as if I was spilling out dark secrets that hadn’t ever seen the light of day.
Her words of wisdom for me about love and relationships were so incredibly comforting that I wanted nothing more than to hug her, and in retrospect, I’m really sad I didn’t. I don’t want to share every thing she said, but I’ll you that it was like I was talking to Aslan, except she wasn’t a Lion, she was 78-year-old witty African-American woman from Cleveland – yup.
“Let me tell you, if I was your age, I’d snatch you up in a heartbeat. You’re a nice, handsome young man and the right woman will come along, snatch you up, and not let you go. That’s love, I tell ya, that’s love right there.”
How It Ended
Our plane landed in Greenville, and before we disembarked, I gave Emma my name, phone number, and email address and said, “If you ever need someone to talk to, give me a call.” She gave me her house number and told me to call anytime.
And poof, just as quickly as she came into my life, she was gone. Just like that. It was so surreal that I couldn’t even prove to you that she actually existed or if it was just an imaginary character like Bagger Vance or something.
Whether she really exists or not, it was so refreshing to meet such a comforting, calm person in this world of craziness. She was so kind and took me into her arms (emotionally/metaphorically) and just accepted me for who I was. She shared her life with me, a complete stranger, as if we’ve known each other for years, and I did the same.
Emma, I’m not sure if we will ever see each other again in this lifetime, but I do want to say THANK YOU. Thank you for reassuring me on my journey to a new land and new opportunities. Thank you for sharing you life story with me. Thank you for making that 45-minute talk better than anything my earbuds would have cranked out if I decided to not hear you out.
THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU.