Well, Friends, what can we say, we’ve made it. Or almost made it. Just one day more. To celebrate our closing we’ll be releasing a special video tomorrow, but for now, I’d like to share a story. It may not seem to quite fit the moment, but I think it does. I think it fits it perfectly.
She comes in once a week, maybe more. But at least once a week. She and her elderly husband. The woman, M—, I know by name, but her husband, who remains waiting in the van, I know only by what I can see through our store window, which is someone much older than her and of considerably-less good health. Almost frail.
M— parks and a few minutes pass. She is taking her time, as if coming to the bakery were a special outing, something more than a Dr’s appointment or just running errands. They sit there in their van, doing I don’t know what. Maybe just talking. Maybe waiting for him to wake, like a toddler. I don’t know and can’t even imagine. At times, through the window, he seems incapable of much more that. Of being awake, alive. I can hear her say: Coming here is not something that should be rushed to its conclusion. And that is how she would say it, too. Adding that unnecessary closing, calmly and with calculation. Drawing attention to the fact that everything, even time designed as distraction, has an ending. Perhaps especially, time designed as distraction.
I know little else of her. She has a son, who often hosts others from around the world to teach and train and do whatever else those in their profession might do in the rural countryside of Edgecombe County. Sometimes, we provide pastries for them. Occasionally, she’ll order ahead, requesting for a selection of breakfast foods typical of their own countries. Dutch pastries. German tarts. Things of that nature. Though we are not that kind of bakery we do the best we can because it is important to her that they feel at home.
When she enters the bakery, M— approaches the counter with intention. Every week, almost without fail, she gets the same thing: A chocolate croissant for her husband and a quiche cruffin for herself. Every now and again, when we are out of the chocolate croissant, for instance, she’ll search the pastry case for a suitable alternative and attempt to make a guess as to what her husband might like, but then excuses herself and leaves the shop to ask his opinion. When she returns with his answer it is usually as she had expected. Such is the intimate nature of togetherness. Knowing what pastry another might want.
They are close in others ways, too, I am sure, but I’ve never asked. Our relationship is as customer-proprietor. Even then, I see her not so much as an individual but as part of a pair. M— and her old husband. She once injured her leg and a sister, I think, came to help her do things around the house. Tend to appointments. Cooking and cleaning. Tasks of that nature. But otherwise I’ve not seen anyone outside of the two of them alone together.
I could at this point draw conjecture, but I’ve grown to like M— and besides that, conjecture seems to be a large part of the problem we have in society today. It’s the fuel for too many wrong opinions and drains us of empathy. You want to know something about someone you should just ask.
And so it was on the day last week when M—came to the bakery. She walked up to the counter as usual, but before we could share our usual greeting she looked me squarely in the eye and behind her face mask said: “Just a cruffin today, please.”
I looked at her and looked at the pastry case, at the tray of chocolate croissants, and then I looked at her again and saw tears welling in her eyes. I leaned and looked out the window to the parking lot, saw the van, and an empty passenger seat.
I found myself, recently, with a good reason to read the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and while doing I came across this poem, which speaks best I think to the feeling I felt when I turned from that window and that empty seat and looked at M—
When my soul touches yours a great chord sings!
How shall I tune it then to other things?
O! That some spot in darkness could be found
That does not vibrate when’er your depth sound.
But everything that touches you and me
Welds us as played strings sound one melody.
Where is the instrument whence the sounds flow?
And whose the master-hand that holds the bow?
O! Sweet song—
I reached across the counter and touched M— lightly on the arm. I stumbled over something to say. Nothing seemed to fit. “Oh , M—” I said.
She stares back at me with those wet eyes and finds her own way to breaking the silence. “He went to the hospital on Monday. Tomorrow I’m bringing him home with hospice care.” She steps away from the counter and reaches for the door, then stops and turns back to me. “So, I probably have bought my last chocolate croissant.”
Now, days later, I pass through town and look in through the shop windows along Main Street and feel differently about what I see there. These are not just restaurants or barber shops or small clothing boutiques and gift shops. They are places were people go for all number of reasons. Some to buy food and other necessities, housewares and jewelry and such. Some go just to seek a few minutes away from a busy day. Others, however, others go for more than a product or service. For them they are there to make a memory, to mark a moment in time, however so brief, that isn’t about the purchase as much as it is about the purpose.
For that, we should all be grateful.