On my way home from Mom and Dad’s house last week, I decided to stop at the thrift store to pick up some books to use for book art. While I was browsing through the 5 for .99 paperbacks, I hummed along with the live harmonica performance of “Shall We Gather At the River.”
Yes, you heard me correctly, a live harmonica performance of “Shall We Gather At the River,” and it was being played by a frail-looking little old lady who was sitting in a metal folding chair by the cash register.
As I gathered five paperbacks I absolutely HAD to have (Emile, The Portable Sherwood Anderson, The Mysterious Benedict Society, Holidays On Ice, and a second copy of All Quiet on the Western Front, 'cause you can't have too many copies of All Quiet on the Western Front), I listened to several other songs that I took to be spirituals, but cannot confirm as such.
By the time I came up to the register to pay, the harmonica player had stood up and was walking (with one of those pronged walking canes that ALWAYS make me think of Posiden) towards the door. She stopped and gave me a once-over.
“I like your pants.”
“Thank you, ma’am. They’re my painting pants. I was just painting over at my folk’s house. I like your harmonica playin.”
Well, about that time, the thrift store harmonica player reached over and took my hand, and she and I proceeded to walk out the door together, talking like me and her and Jesus had known each other for years. During the conversation, I realized that something about her was a little different, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Me: “You live ‘round here?”
Harmonica Player: “Just about two blocks away. Where are you headed?”
Me: “I’m headed back home. My partner and I live downtown. How’d you get here?”
Harmonica Player: “I walked.”
Me: “Well, can I give you a lift?”
Harmonica Player: “Oh, that would nice.”
So, I cleaned out the seat and helped the thrift store harmonica player into my car.
Sure enough, she lived just a piece down the road, in a modest brick ranch house that she referred to as “the retirement home.” While we sat in the car together for the next thirty minutes or so, I learned that her name was Ethel, that she was 90 years old, and was blind (macular degeneration, like my gran). She had several children (two of which she had outlived), and a husband she had been married to for many years (he passed away about eleven years after purchasing the retirement home, thereby not getting to enjoy the retirement home much). She loved Jesus deeply, and she enjoyed hamburgers.
I also learned some things about Ethel that her kids may not even know about, personal discoveries (that I’ll not mention out of respect for her privacy) that she seemed to come upon for the first time while sitting in my car with me. She was a revelation to me and to herself.
She lives alone. And likes it that way. Probably because there is no one there to stop her from walking down to the thrift store to play the harmonica for folks on a sunny Saturday afternoon…