In 1990, we came to Minnesota in a state of frazzled homelessness. So my family and I, sometimes in pieces as one or the other teen, would drop out by running away or going back to Illinois, where they felt more at home.
My idea was to make a new life for us, and for me, there was no turning back. We arrived at a shelter downtown due to our long route through Wisconsin and finally making enough connections by phone to lovely people in various agencies. I began a journal to write down available rental leads possible job offers.
We settled into a two-bedroom apartment on the south side of Minneapolis in three weeks, and I was enrolled in college pursuing my human services degree. I had acquired a ten-month-old grandson, and my fifteen-year-old son, the youngest of my five children, had turned into a sullen and silent kid who hated the idea of our situation no matter how hard I tried to improve it. Nevertheless, I kept moving forward, hoping my children would forgive me for being such a “child-like “mother. Perhaps they would. Maybe not, but I had to go on, if only for myself.
When I garnered enough credits to begin working in a shelter for abused women and children as an advocate, I made about eleven dollars an hour. In all the work I had done in my life, I never had full-time and never that much. Yet, I was able to buy things brand new, fill our fridge, and send my son, who began to feel “safe,” a better life and education.
We never owned a car, but I rode the bus each day, to and from my job. I stood out in the blizzard-like weather and the sun-drenched weather as well, waiting for the bus. While waiting, I would look across the street from my stop to watch people going in and out of a White Castle hamburger place where we thought we would eat forever, because in Chicago, we had loved White Castle burgers, and it was a treat when I could buy them for my five children. We never frequented the place much in Minneapolis, but I began watching the patrons who did. I noticed among the customers, and there seemed to be familiar faces of seniors who went every day, about the same time. I was mildly curious but let it go from my head.
One day, I was inside the restaurant when I noticed one or two booths with familiar faces having coffee and laughing good-naturedly among themselves. A tall, dark-complexioned man in his sixties, I guessed, looked up congenially at me and spoke above the others. “Come join us for coffee, young lady.” The blur of older faces, men and women, dropped to silence as they waited for my response. I hesitated, but since it was an off day and my grandson was visiting one of his parents, I said yes. The man stood so I could sit next to him. To this day, I cannot recall his name, but as a forty-five-year-old, I felt young and out of place.
At least three or four women, all in their sixties, regarded me with stiff smiles and knowing eyes. The men of the same age looked proudly at the man who had gathered the nerve to invite me, and they gave him collectively “Atta boy” looks. To them, I was a “young thing,” and they were gushing and grinning all over the place. I thought to myself, “Girl, you look good! “ I was slim from working out and could pass for ten years younger. I slid in easily next to him, and the familiar fragrance of aftershave from the past reached my nostrils and took me to a place of uncles in my childhood.
After a cup of coffee strong enough to grow hair on my chest (I forgot to order decaf), the man admitted he had seen me around and then walked the two blocks up to my house. I had experienced relationships with older men in my thirties and early forties. They were always willing to give me things, and I always seemed to need things I could not afford, but with my job and having a new life offered to me, I knew that the games I had once played were no longer necessary. I knew this man had been in his twenties when I was born. I held no romantic notions for him, but he made me feel safe and protected.
The Christmas holidays approached, and I saw less and less of the man. I did not look for him and wrote him off as a friend I could pack away into my memory bank. Now and then, he would bring me candy or flowers from the local grocery store. But, I had a lot on my mind. A runaway daughter had returned with her baby, and in my so-called free time, I was taking care of both baby and toddler.
As other members of our family brought in toys and gifts under a big white donated Christmas tree, I felt the holiday spirit. I was so thankful for our new start, and in the midst of it all, I got a call from the man. “Come by my apartment. I have something for you and the children,” he said. I had never been to his apartment, but it was not far away. One of my older sons, who had also come to Minnesota, drove me over and found that he lived in an extraordinary place. His apartment was tiny with a glass-covered sign in the kitchen, forbidding tenants to nail pictures or anything else on the walls. There was a small sofa and coffee table but no bedroom. There was a radio but no television. The radio was cranking out soft Christmas carols.
I looked around for wrapped gifts and, seeing none, thought, “Is this a joke?” See, I was still wounded from previous happenings in my life, and I was cautious if nothing else. I looked at his living room door, checking the locks if I needed to make a quick escape, but instead of having to flee, I was listening to his voice. So deep, yet soothing. “I won’t be seeing you again,” he said, his eyes filled with something I could not decipher. I was confused but held my tongue. My mind raced along. “New woman or some old love returned, or maybe I was just too busy for him. I was always working or performing in community plays or hanging out with my family. He stepped closer to me, and I froze in place. He looked directly into my eyes. His brown eyes filled with experiences yet to come for me. Mine is wide with “I have been here before” and defiant words in my throat if I have to use them.
He touched my face with a rough but gentle hand. We had never been lovers, you know, but he had hugged me and kissed my cheek or forehead before. He smelled like my dad’s aftershave, or was it a cologne? My nostrils flared with recognition of a time long gone. I asked why we would not see each other, and he chuckled and stood back, “Well, I have someplace to go,” he said softly. With that, he walked to his little fridge and lifted out two bags heavy with oranges and Christmas candy. “This is for the kids,” he said, almost shyly, extending them to me. I took them but placed them on his coffee table. I went to him, put my arms around him, and thanked him.
My eyes were watering because I knew something, but nothing at all. I was not thanking him for the oranges so much as I was thanking him for spending good clean time with me Times that expected nothing. I did not have to wrestle with him at the door when he brought me home from a movie or the hamburger place. As little time as we spent together, there had been room for old jokes and new and for a time, we stood outside my apartment building and counted the stars.
I am ashamed not remembering his name, but I took a chance and walked over to White Castle a few weeks into the New Year. His friends were all there. They greeted me with cautious eyes and tight smiles. I sat down and ordered a coffee for myself and for all who would accept one from me.
I finally got up my nerve to ask about him. “Honey, he died,” a woman volunteered, looking at me as if I should have known. I could not speak. I was ashamed that I had not tried to contact him. I had inherited a dread-locked artist and activist who attended my multicultural theater classes during the time away from him. I tried not to appear surprised, and I was not going to ask how or when. Instead, I sipped my coffee and thought to myself, “One day, you will be a senior, looking for a tribe just like this one. I will be savoring every day, perhaps not with someone twenty years my junior, but I will want to taste this part of life with as much enthusiasm as these people do. They and my senior suitor had a lot to teach the world about life and romance and what those gifts mean in each of our seasons.