Tales From the Counter #3: How Our Client Started a War
Written and Edited by Jenny Wonderling. Unless otherwise credited, all photos by West Murray & westmurray.com. Please note: Photos are not of subjects mentioned.
Photo: Jenny Wonderling
Keys in the door, alarm off, count the register, turn on the lights, put on some music, brew some tea, open sign in the window, it's a new day at Nectar! The weather is sunny and warm so I'll put some furniture outside by the curb to grab the attention of cars whipping by this blind curve. And we need as much help as we can get in this sleepy town where we are located on the outskirts, divided by a bridge from most of the other businesses. Yet the pace is also something I often like. I have gotten to know my customers in a way shop owners in big cities probably rarely can, simply because of the time I share with each visitor. They step in one by one to make a mere purchase yet they offer up so much to me: most often the generous reminder that humanity, contrary to what the media would lead us all to believe, is still alive and well in small islands of kindness and hope.
Last week, a 78 year old woman walked in on a solid stride, though it wouldn't be until nearly the end of her visit that she would reveal her age to me. There were so few lines in her placid face, curiosity in her bright eyes still, as if she was always at the ready to catch life's jokes. She certainly didn't act or move like an octogenarian, not because she was fighting or concealing time but because, I would come to learn, she had stayed connected to a playfulness and gratitude inside her. I was so inspired and energized by her, but all this was not so instantly apparent.
In had walked a certain efficiency. She had short cropped hair in its natural dark grey, easy and practical. She wore no make up or had any obvious nip and tuck. Besides, she didn't seem the type. She seemed unbothered by vanity; in fact she seemed unbothered by everything. And without worry, time had been kind. These must seem like presumptuous statements but a lot can be read in someone's movements as they scan a room, scrutinizing particular objects or passing by others with hardly a glance.
As some customers do, this woman preferred little assistance to explore Nectar's inventory. While she moved through the space, I silently, furtively took in her details between emailing online customers and working on a newsletter: white t-shirt, a beaded necklace that had been loomed but was quite modern and sculptural, loose linen pants, a smile never far off. After a while she fired off a series of questions but had to strain for the answers, asking each time that I repeat myself until I recognized a pattern. I stepped closer to her to make sure she could watch my lips as I uttered each carefully articulated response.
She was choosing presents for her daughter, a lotus votive holder, an organic body lotion, some tea...
Photo by Nini Ordoubadi & Tay Tea @ Tay, Delhi, NY
When it was time to pay, she sat across from me at my counter while I wrapped her gifts and rang her up. I don't even recall what prompted the deeper exchanges but soon she was telling me about her mother who raised her "In a tiny, tiny town in the mountains of Ireland where she and my dad had also grown up" and how when they finally brought in electricity "most of the town wanted nothing to do with it. They wanted con-ver-sa-tion she said slowly and deliberately, then let out an easy laugh at the irony. "Everyone had everything they needed and they didn't see how it could possibly improve their lives. And it really hasn't!" And then she laughed some more. "Life was so simple and wonderful back then, though I will admit I grew up so sheltered in that town and I was so naive that I really didn't understand a thing that was going on in the world until much later." She laughed and laughed, remembering, and then set out to tell a story.
"I was about six when World War 2 started. I knew nothing of war or anything beyond the bucolic life in our little town. I had few friends because there were not many kids my age so I spent too much time with one girl who was very, very naughty. I was inherently innocent and she knew it and took full advantage! So one day she told me I had to do something in particular and if I didn't she said she would no longer be my friend. I never wanted to harm anything or anyone but I went along with it or risk being bored to death. She said, "You have to run into the laundromat and scream "Chinka Chinka Chinamen!" at the top of your lungs!" Those poor bewildered men who ran that shop. Though I didn't understand why what I had done was bad, in that instant I had read their horrified expressions. I bolted open the door and dashed out to my laughing friend. But I was left with a terrible feeling, and I kept thinking about one man in particular who shook his head, wearing such an expression of sadness. I knew I had been disrespectful and my parents would not approve. "Later that night a bunch of men came to my house to speak to my dad. I wondered if it was because of what I had done. They were wringing their hands, very concerned, talking about things I could not understand. They mentioned words like "the war" and "the bomb," things I had never heard anything about. I could tell something truly terrible had happened and yet I had been so protected previously that I knew nothing about Nazis or anything else.
"I was ashamed and afraid for my father to see me, but I came out of hiding and asked him, "What is a bomb? What does it mean: "It was dropped. Where?" He was irritated by my childish inquiries and tried to shoo me away. " I persisted.
'"The Japs, over there!" he finally said, pointing east. I had never been out of my town. He was pointing just beyond it, to the next village obviously, where the Chinamen were known to live.
'"Who are the Japs? What are they?" I asked feverishly, afraid for what I had done.
'"They're like the Chinamen from the laundry in town! Now leave me alone to be with the men!" he said dismissively, and so uncharacteristic for this usually patient man. I ran off crying to my room, sure now that I had caused the bombs to fall on the town where they lived. Somehow I had started World War 2!"
My new friend at the counter was laughing heartily again, amazed by her own misconceptions. "I was bereft and carried that guilt with me for years. Ahh, the naïveté of children! My husband absolutely loves that story! How his wife started a World War! I can't say I saw the humor for a long, long time though. But it just goes to show how beautifully innocent we all start out, how precious that is, and how careful we need to be when raising our children..."
That had brought us to the subject of her own and I asked about how many children she had and who would receive the gifts. "My daughter is the strongest person I know, " she said unequivocally and without delay. "She's really my hero." Then she proceeded to tell me another story, about how her daughter has been standing outside of a mall when a gang did a drive-by shooting "And my daughter caught a bullet in her throat. It was just awful; she's lucky to be alive. She could no longer eat normally or speak. But her attitude has been so incredible..." My new friend was not emotional as she told me this, just beamed with pride. "She recently had an operation and the doctors miraculously restored her ability to speak. And she's teaching again! Can you imagine her courage?! And she's a lesbian. How much strength she has in her to live true to herself, to overcome! She's truly my hero," she said, repeating this powerful descriptor, the full meaning of which I now understood. "How many people betray themselves, stay a victim, live a life without joy when each and every day is such an extraordinary gift?" she said.
I loved this woman entirely. Here she was, living so far from the sheltered life where she grew up, open minded and hearted as could be, full of forgiveness and gratitude. I could have spent the rest of the day with her but we both had things to get back to. We hugged, exchanged numbers on small pieces of torn paper in hopes of getting together again. As I watched her march out, I marveled at how life really is just about attitude, how we respond to the stories, and not the stories themselves. Or as Pema Chodron so succinctly wrote, "We are the sky. Everything else is just the weather."