You would think that identity is fairly straightforward: I am the face in the mirror, I am the man who lives in Vancouver, the one who had a dog named Rugal. We are all pronouns, the subjects of our sentences.
And yet, even pronouns have adjectives that follow them around like shadows -descriptions that identify characteristics that separate us from all those around. The more adjectives we need, the more similar we are -and the list can be tedious. Cumbersome. Some of us need a change, a new branch on the tree: DNA testing.
For some reason, I have never felt that need -my personal pronoun has always sufficed. And whether some ancestor of mine was the king of Sweden, or swam the Hellespont is of little interest to me. Knowing what somebody I never knew accomplished in the distant past does not change today’s trajectory in the slightest. I am still me. I am still now.
But we are all stories, aren’t we? Some of us even think of ourselves as unread novels with plots that extend through time to tug on our sleeves like hopeful children. Still, the past is a library so full of books I could not possibly read them all. I’m sure I’d be intrigued by whatever one I opened, however random the choice, and that should give us all pause. It’s fun to listen to others, though.
I was sitting in my usual dark table in a shadowed corner of Starbucks the other day, waiting for my coffee to cool off. Actually, I was polishing off one of their large cookies in the meantime and feeling guilty that I had succumbed -a recurring theme in my retirement. For as long as I have known me, I have always been a capitulator, though, so it is a story I have read many times. And yes, sometimes I wish I had written it differently, but you get what they print, eh?
Anyway, as my conscience was gnawing away at the cookie, two large, elderly women sat down at the table next to me. I say ‘elderly’ merely because of the wrinkles on their faces that were as evident as the lines in a children’s notebook, even in the subdued light. And yet their tee shirts identified them more as pretend-teenagers with arthritic hands, and noisy teeth that seemed to move like soldiers on parade.
The lady closest to me was wearing an over-sized yellow Jay-Z shirt that hung from her shoulders as curtain might, but it could have been some sort of fashion statement, I suppose. “I still can’t believe it, Fay,” she said to her friend as they sat down heavily on their chairs.
Fay, smiled warmly -in fact she was perspiring, and little rivulets of sweat snaked down her terraced forehead and then ran freely along the furrows of her cheeks. At first I couldn’t see the design on her chest, but as she moved to wipe her face, I could see the vague outline of a Jim Morrison head, complete with its long wavy hair. Fay was the older of the two, I decided.
“But it so fits with your personality, Elspeth,” she responded, nodding her head between wipes.
“Do you think?” Elspeth was obvious pleased, and had a short gulp of her coffee before she dug into her blueberry scone. I hadn’t seen those, and I put my cookie down with envy. “I’ve always kind of suspected something like that, you know…”
“I mean, you always seem so determined, Ellie.” Fay was laying it on thick. I could tell it was a signal to her friend.
Elspeth nodded, and I could see she had caught the message: time to reciprocate. “I’m so envious of you, though, Fay. We never expect this kind of thing, do we?”
Fay stopped wiping for a moment and looked at her friend. “No,” she finally conceded, “I certainly didn’t expect to be royalty, or anything.” Clearly she had hoped that Elspeth might at least have had inkling of it beforehand. “We can’t all be royalty, though, I guess.” It was a not-so-subtle take-down.
“Mind you,” Elspeth added, “we were never subjugated.”
“That’s because you left before we could catch you.”
Elspeth straightened herself in the chair, and I could feel the creak as it scraped along the floor. “Along with the booty from all your churches and villages, you mean…?”
Fay abandoned the napkin she’d been using on her face and placed it on the table in front of her like a jewel. “You had to stick to the outskirts though, eh? You never even made a stab at the capital.”
The light wasn’t very helpful in that part of Starbucks, but I was fairly sure that Elspeth sneered. I don’t think it was a pout, but sometimes you just can’t tell, can you?
“The churches had all the gold in those days, Fay. There was no need to go any further.”
“Grab and run!” Fay answered with an exaggerated, condescending shrug of her shoulders, and Jimmy seemed to frown on her chest.
Elspeth smiled patiently -the school teacher humouring a dull student. “There wasn’t much to be queen of, in those days, anyway.”
“Well, at least we didn’t have to row around in storms looking for some place to land our boats.”
Another condescending smile from Elspeth. “Beats living in a drafty, dirty castle picking lice off each other. We were free…”
Fay had forgotten all about the sweat, and it was beginning to drip onto her tee shirt -Morrison was beginning to look as frazzled as at the end of a concert. “You may have a point there, El,” she said and picked up the napkin again.
“Then again, it must have been hard work for us,” Elspeth added. “I mean, sailing around for months on end with the kids at home wondering if they’d ever see us again. Never knowing whether or not we could steal enough to put food on the table…”
Fay paused after a particularly encompassing wipe and a puzzled look peeked out from between the still-moist wrinkles. “I wonder if they actually took you wives on those trips, El. Wouldn’t it have sort of put a bit of a damper on their pillaging or whatever?”
Elspeth frowned, for the first time. “Never thought of that, Fay…” She took a sip of her coffee, then thoughtfully scarfed down the rest of her scone. “I suppose in those days women didn’t have much going for them…”
Fay did a quick wipe and then finished off her coffee in one heroic gulp. “And even the queens were probably under their husband’s thumbs…”
There was a moment, just before they struggled to their feet and toddled off, when their eyes seemed to twinkle at each other. “Do you think we got our money’s worth, Fay?”
Fay shrugged, as she scraped her chair back from the table. “I don’t see how it’s helped either of us.” Her knees cracked with the added strain. “We are what we are, no matter, eh?”
After they’d gone, I glanced at the wealth of cookie that still remained on my plate. I decided that, even though I sometimes made poor choices, the present wasn’t such a bad time to live…