There are many benefits to living alone, I suppose -there is less laundry, for one thing- but they contribute little to weaving the social fabric. Communal words of salutation come less easily to mind, and even the voice required comes out hoarse with infrequent usage. Misinterpretations are rife, so that even when confronted with commonplace greetings like ‘How are you?’ I was apt to answer with uncalled for details that spilled like water from an overfilled cup.
That, however, was the old me. With determined insightfulness, I have since learned to remedy many of my social ineptitudes and rid myself of the most offensive gaffes by practicing on strangers on park benches, or seat mates on buses; I prefer buses, actually, because it doesn’t seem as weird to sit beside someone there -and besides, if push comes to shout, you can always pull the cord and get off at the next stop.
But, as the old King James bible warns: Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. I sometimes get too confident, you know, and like Alexander Pope’s angels, wade in where even fools fear to tread… or, was it the other way round? Anyway, I think I’m getting better.
The other day, for example, I got involved in a discussion between and elderly soul who was sitting beside me and a younger, louder woman in the seat ahead. In fairness, my seat mate looked a lot like Miss Brownlik, my grade 4 teacher in Winnipeg, who always wrote her name on the board without a ‘c’ -just to be sure we would spell it correctly, she’d say each time. The class would always snigger, and I felt as sorry for her then as I did now. Both Miss Brownliks seemed shy and easy prey for anybody willing to talk louder than they would, and I could see my seat partner visibly cringing in the onslaught from in front. Her bony hands gripped her purse as if it was in imminent danger of falling off her lap every time the face in front turned to voice yet another complaint about the world in which she lived.
“Why did the driver wait for all those people?” the woman in front fairly hissed, her long dark hair striking the neck of the man beside her like the branch of a tree as she swung her head around.
Miss Brownlik blinked at the vehemence of the hiss, but managed to maintain a weak smile nonetheless. “Perhaps he saw them running for the bus in his mirror, Dorothy,” she said kindly -much as my teacher would have spoken to the kids in the back row of the class.
The fact that the two of them knew each other did little to reassure me though, I have to say.
“But just look at the bus now,” Dorothy continued. “The aisles are so full, even the people in seats are being jostled!”
Despite the noise in the bus with the added passengers, I could feel, if not hear, Miss Brownlik’s sigh. “But you’re in a window seat, Dor -nobody’s jostling you.”
“That’s not the point, and you know it, mother!”
For the briefest instant, Miss Brownlik’s eyes betrayed a very non-Brownlikian disapproval, and had I not glanced at her that very moment, I would have missed it altogether, because they quickly relapsed into their Grade 4 mode once more. “For heaven’s sake, Dorothy…”
Better. More like the teacher I remembered so fondly: criticize by withholding approval rather than uttering a rebuke.
“I told you we should have taken a cab,” Dorothy responded sulkily after a pause, only partially turning her head this time, even though the man beside her had anticipated another lash of her hair and leaned away to avoid it.
“I rather enjoy the bus,” Brownlik said, in the soft, understanding voice I had come to expect of her.
Suddenly, Dorothy turned her head fully, the thrash of her hair catching the man beside her totally by surprise. “I would have thought you’d have had enough of people in the Manor by now, mother!”
Ahhaa, now it was becoming clearer. The daughter had put her mother in a Home, and was now probably returning her after a token outing that had gone terribly wrong.
“I enjoy people, Dor…”
“Everybody but your daughter, you mean?” Dorothy’s eyes were steaming now.
I was beginning to feel distinctly uncomfortable, and so were the people standing in the aisle beside our seats. Everybody was attentively watching the two of them -with the possible exception of the man sitting beside Dorothy, who, in hopes she would continue to focus her anger elsewhere, had opted to stare at his lap.
“I enjoy you, Dor…”
I caught the uncertainty in her voice, and I hoped it might somehow weaken on its way to the seat ahead. Unfortunately, Dorothy was waiting with ears primed and waiting for an insult.
“You enjoy yourself, mother,” she hissed at Miss Brownlik, but loudly enough for the audience crowding around the stage to hear with ease. “You think it’s cute to be old. You love the attention!”
I don’t suppose the Brownlik doppelgänger, the dear old soul sitting with her bony elbow trying to claim my space, was very much older than me, so I must admit I was beginning to take offence at Dorothy’s tone.
“And don’t put on that old ‘What are you talking about’ face, either, mother!” She paused briefly for effect. “You know, I’m glad you moved out!”
A quick glance at Brownlik’s face confirmed that she was also glad she’d moved out. But it was not an angry face, nor a hurt face -more a resigned face. She even managed a smile.
But I didn’t; I couldn’t. I decided to use some of my newly honed social skills to moderate things before they got further out of hand. “My mother lived in a Home,” I said, hoping to show I understood the situation.
The bus went silent -well, maybe just the part around our seats, but it seemed significant, and spurred me to greater oratorical heights. “We had to put her in there because she kept wandering off…” I figured I had to set the stage for my point, but somebody gasped. I took that as unrelated to my explanatory prelude, though -stuff is always happening in the aisle.
The silence continued, but Miss Brownlik’s expression changed, however, and her eyes examined me for a moment like one of those children in the back of her classroom. She looked disappointed, I thought, and at first, a wave of guilt seared through me like the old days. But then I realized that the quietness meant I had managed to mediate the anger successfully so I decided to pull the cord and leave on a high note.
The people in the aisle immediately parted as I stood up to leave, and the respectful silence as I walked through them to the door, seemed a fitting reward for my accomplishment.
Sometimes, I told myself as I stepped onto the sidewalk, you just have to do the right thing.