Russell from Produce asked me out to lunch.
A date! What a red-letter day that was. I knew it would be a memorable occasion, but had no idea how memorable or why.
Russell worked in, well, Produce. I was the early morning cashier. The store sold specialized health foods in an upscale neighborhood for affluent surprisingly volatile customers. I was afraid of the internationally known chef/teacher/acolyte customers and their lofty standards. In a doomed effort to appease them I would arrive 30 minutes before my shift to memorize the selections and prices of the vegetables.
Naturally, that meant taking early walks through the Produce Realm. That was when Russell started saying hello, and we got talking. Right away his calm nature and work ethic won me over. Soon we were taking our breaks at the same time. The customers and staff began commenting that Russell and I looked a lot alike — height, eyes, hair, complexion, quiet voices, self-deprecating humor, and the habit of paying attention while staying well in the background. Our teammates started saying “Russ, your sister needs help toting cartons out to some lady’s car,” or telling me “Hey, your cousin needs a hand on the loading dock.” So when Russell asked me for a picnic lunch at the park, the gang said “The Twins on a date! How cute is that? Is it legal?”
I knew one thing for sure. The invitation “Let’s have lunch” means the girl is supposed to cook for half the night and bring a lot of vittles to show the man that she knows how. Then she waits outside half an hour early holding the shopping bags of food even if it’s raining, because guys don’t like it when you make them wait around leaning on their car horn. Then the whole idea of a date is that the guy will put the girl through her paces. Like, see if she can walk a long way carrying stuff in cold or hot weather, or take care of his most troubled relatives, or copy all her notes from Linguistics class for him, or sit while he drives for hours without once saying “We should have asked at the filling station.” That way he can make sure she is sturdy and good natured as wife material.
So okay. On Date Morning I was out on the street with tripled paper shopping sacks well lined with layers of plastic bags because it was raining hard. I was pretty well lined myself: flannel lumberjack shirt; oldest sneakers, so it didn’t matter if they got soaked, with the soles coming loose in front making little flappy sounds; billowy combat “gas attack” army trousers with drawstring; long olive rain slicker over my knapsack; vinyl chaps pulled up tight to the thigh and laced to the belt. But despite all this practical outdoor gear, I was soaked in a sideways nor’easter when Russell drove up in half an hour, right on time.
In his tidy car the wet triple shopping bags gave way, tumbling food parcels on the seat and floor. So to re-pack it all I asked him to stop at church. There he and I could run in to pick up my huge mixing bowl and the Tupperware left behind at a potluck from the night before.
But Russell in a calm courteous manner said “I don’t do church. Really. No church.” Now, these days after years of hearing people’s faith-based traumas, after reading enough Christopher Hitchens, I am much more empathic toward Freethinkers. When a man says “No church please,” it means “Before you drag me into one, just serve me my picnic lunch inside a car wash.”
But back then I didn’t pick up on that. I told him “No no, no church. They don’t have service on Saturday. Place will be empty. This will take just a lil’ minute.
So in we went, traipsing across the dim basement. Groping for a light switch with rain pouring down my steamy glasses and plastered hair, I saw a light-filled door swing open. A boy of 7 or so years looked in and asked in wonder “Oh. Hello. Are you two relatives?”
Twin Russ and I had gotten so many separated at birth comments, it is no wonder that 1. our inbred-White appearance might confuse this very young man who happened to be African-American, and 2. Russ and I took it for granted that he was asking whether we were related to each other. I never dreamed that he was really asking whether we were related TO HIM. And so, instead of a simple “Nope. Here for Tupperware. Going quietly now,” I said the pivotal words: “Yes, it certainly looks that way, doesn’t it?”
And that was the cause of It All.
The boy hesitated. A man’s silhouette appeared in the doorway just long enough to whisper, “Now, Elijah! If the young lady and gentleman say that they are relatives, then they are relatives! It is not your place or mine to question them.”
I should have stopped and wondered what he wondered by that. But my focus was all on re-claiming my mountain of Tupperware plus huge mixing bowl, and getting myself and Russ out the door.
Elijah watched me stumble over a chair and into the wall. He said “Ma’am, excuse me. I apologize for the question. Please, follow me right this way, I’ll show you where to go.”
Oh good. Clearly as an actual member of this church, he was showing me a more direct exit to the parking lot. I should have confirmed that by asking him. I also should have noticed that in a closed church, on a non-worship day, our young guide was beautifully dressed in a black suit and tie with white shirt and an ironed handkerchief in the front pocket. Clothing style is not my strongest suit, so I did not see this as a significant cue.
Thanking Elijah for his offer I charged ahead with steaming eyeglasses and heavily laden arms.
Elijah held the door with a bow and stepped out of our way, letting us make our grand entrance to the sanctuary and a place of honor up between the podium and the altar. The church had just fallen perfectly silent. I realized why only after mopping back my hair for a look around.
Well. The pin-drop quiet had fallen because a casket decked with flowers was just being set on the floor by reverent pall-bearers, while a minister was just stepping to the microphone with an opening prayer. The church was packed with a reverent congregation. They wore good suits and dresses in rich fabrics and colors, beautifully coordinated with gloves, boutonnieres, fans, scarves, pearls, pocket watches, brooches, corsages, dotted face veils, and trimmed hats. An earnest gentleman nearby stood up instantly, and with consoling hands on my shoulders guided me to take his seat. To spare the upholstery I struggled with cutlery and bowl to shed my streaming raincoat, and balled it up on the floor behind my sneakers. Then I realized too late that in contrast to the rest of my outfit, that wet poncho had looked good. Imagine a service graced with genuine nobility, like the heart-clenching Mahalia Jackson song finale at the end of Imitation of Life 1959. Only this time someone came wandering in like that Red Skelton ragamuffin who mimed various antics while an offstage cowbell made comical oodle-doodle noises.
The minister began a heartfelt, profound, moving prayer to center our attention and good wishes on our honored loved one. He offered a touching tribute to the courage and warmth and humor of his parishioner. Clearly, in her long long life she had parented and guided several generations of children, her own and many others in her care, as a powerful moral influence.
Russell stood frozen in the corner and I cowered in my chair as congregation members rose to contribute their recollections. Their name for this great-great-grand-elder escapes me now — say, something like “Granamere,” personal and warm, yet elegant and reverent. Listening to their stories old and new, to voices tearful or laughing with gratitude and joy, I was spellbound.
It all brought back the loss of my own two grandmothers, while I was off at college. The two of them watched their cute grand-butterball grow into a dumpy slouching melancholic teen with inept social skills, a girl who tried to relate to both of them but could offer no achievement of real interest to show or tell to gladden their later years. Feeling that I’d let them both down, I gradually drifted out of touch. In both cases, news of their death left a backwash of emptiness and guilt. Only here and now, dripping in a chair, did the loss hit me — not only both grandmothers, but the legacy that I should have gathered and kept alive from the family roots. At last I began to mourn both of my own relatives. Soon I was doubled over, head in the mixing bowl, hyperventilating with whoops of grief.
The minister turned to us, the only two White people in the congregation. “Dear Family and Friends: see how this sister and brother up here have come to worship with us today. What a blessing to see them joining us. Sister, won’t you please take your turn at the microphone? Come, share with us your own memory of Granamere.” Fortunately I was crying far too hard to breathe, let alone narrate anything to anyone. I gathered my raincoat, stood up, gripped the bowl, bowed to them all several times with my hand to my heart, and staggered sobbing out the door.
If we could rewrite time the way we rewrite blogs, the rest of that Date would go like this. Somebody puts an arm around the girl and says “Sweetheart, looks like that was an emotional experience for you. Want to talk about it? What say we drive 5 minutes home and you change clothes into something nicer, and then we take this 6 day supply of lunch back to the church and share it with those people and explain?” And somebody sits down with the young man from Produce and says “For a guy who does not do church and who avoids the center of attention, you’ve had a tough morning. What do you need? Football on TV? Long walk? Cold Guinness at the firehouse pub?” Something.
But no. In the car, I was too crestfallen to speak. I suspected that this would be the most inept pratfall of my life (False. There have been many more.), and that this my last chance at a date with Russell from Produce (True).
I don’t remember a single word we said as we parked the car and ate lunch in the deluge. I don’t remember the lunch either. Russell dropped me off at my half-room at the study house. Next day he and I were back at work. Within days the store manager encouraged me to try my hand at some other day gig, and that was the end of my cashier career. Russell moved on to all new friends and activities, joining a worldwide organization which promotes a comprehensive system of training in self-transformation, and that was that.
But it’s a pleasure to think back on that kindly practical level-headed young man. He passed his audition date with the flying colors of sturdy good-natured husband potential. He spoke not a word of complaint or reproach after the funeral. Dear Russ, my better-looking Doppelganger: your other dates with other girls could only have gotten better. Wherever you are today, thank you for asking me out. It was a good idea.
And you, Lovely People who rejoiced and mourned together, in case you read these words some day. You gathered in the fall of 1984 at Christ Church Unity on Colchester St., Brookline MA. You came with loving hearts to pay your deep respects at a dignified inspiring service. Your loved one was the treasured and irreplaceable family matriarch who rocked your cradles and made chicken soup and taught you how to read. I was the minstrel show who blew in from the rain, and wrote this down to say that I am sorry. Your kindness to me was the best eulogy to Granamere and to her hospitality for all of her children, even the random one. To this day, a glowing thread of her character guides my behavior when meeting the stranger, the addict, the shaken, the unstable people who trip and fall across my own path from the nor’easters of life.
And Granamere, Светлая память — Bright Memory to you!