My New Valentine

Ten Decembers ago I came across an elderly woman sitting alone at a Starbucks. Nothing in particular struck me about her except an overwhelming intuition that she was depressed. I was recovering from an accident that year, and was feeling low myself then, so maybe it was a sensory empathy thing.
Whatever the reason, I brazenly walked up to her, introduced myself, and began a relationship that only recently ended with her death at age 90. We became close so I took her death pretty hard. Jennie Jones was a wonderful, if belligerent, woman, and I was moved when the nursing home called me to come pick up her stuff.
She had nobody else.
In her drawers I found neatly clasped parcels of every letter and photograph I’d given her over the years. Even the ones where she’d said I’d looked fat. She was quite particular about my appearance, and insisted that if a younger gentleman escorted her about town he’d better be handsome, or at least groomed.
So this holiday season I felt a great void, since nearly every Christmas while knowing her we’d spent at least part of the day together. It didn’t take long for me to realize I needed another woman! And fast.
I logged onto the craigslist volunteer website and there, between hundreds of pleadings for tutors, African school funds, and baby formula donations, was a solitary posting that stood out just as Jennie had stood out that day in Starbucks.
It read:
Lonely Depressed Old Woman Needs a Companion For Christmas Day. Please call.
I called the number almost immediately, and reached the concerned next-door neighbor of an 88-year-old woman named Dorothy. The younger woman explained that she had family obligations out of town, or she’d, of course, have Dorothy over on Christmas. But that might not even be enough, she continued. Dorothy was in a very bad emotional state. All three of her children had died, and she’d been a widow for nearly twenty years.
Well this was a no-brainer. I committed right then and popped over the next day for a short visit to meet the neighbor and assure her of my good intentions. After I passed her smell test, she decided Dorothy would have no say in the matter.
“Here’s who’s taking you out on Christmas, have a nice time,” the neighbor said when introducing Dorothy and I a few moments later.
Then she scooted back to her house leaving us to size each other up on Dorothy’s front stoop.
I think that went pretty well (though she rivaled my old friend Jenny in the grumpy department) because several days later I found myself returning for my new Christmas date, now dolled up in an elegant forties-era dress.
Apparently for Safeway, because that’s where she wanted to go. It seems it had been awhile since she’d had a ride to the grocery store, and not having to traipse onto the bus bogged down with supplies was a gift itself.
So we spent most of Christmas afternoon at the supermarket, which I pretty much enjoyed, it was a very alternative Capitol Hill thing to do. And shopping with a woman as old as Dorothy was a rather Zen experience. It took literally hours, as she lingered over every piece of fruit and vegetable, micro-inspected every price, read the fine print on every coupon etc.
If you’re going to do something do it well.
By the time we were finished I’d had quite a pleasant experience, but Dorothy merely shrugged and seemed unsatisfied with the day. To her we were doing mundane chores. She mumbled something about just wanting to get the day over with, as we got into the car.
But I hadn’t learned much about her, and though I hadn’t been able to shake her surliness by this time, it wasn’t for lack of trying. I don’t give up easy, and if I had yet to see her flash a smile, she’d blurted out a few wisecracks, so I knew there was hope. And she didn’t seem to really want to go home, although she sheepishly offered me the option of dropping her off, as if knowing she wasn’t being a peach.
Instead, I suggested we find a place to have Christmas Dinner. Which quickly looked to be a poor decision as we drove all over the hill looking for a cafe that was open. By the time I parked in the Pike/Pine Corridor, assuming there HAD to be something open there, it was dark and raining and even Dickensian walking the blustery streets.
Nothing was open. All was lost. Or was it?  What was that amazing smell suddenly looping cartoonishly under our noses as we approached 10th Avenue and Pike? We followed the aroma around a corner where a Chicago-style hot dog stand magically appeared like the emerald city!
Dorothy produced her first smile, and it was a whopper. As we ordered and chatted with the Christmas-Angel-hot-dog-man she burst forth like a geyser with an astounding repertoire of hotdog-related memories. She was actually from Chicago, born in 1922, and as a child her father used to take her to Fluky’s, the legendary Chicago hot dog stand. She was the only daughter in a family with five boys, so she was daddy’s little girl. He’d died when she was just 14 and she still missed him.
Of course the smiles and laughter turned to tears as she bit into the wiener, and I let her alternately laugh and cry and just get it all out. We hung around after eating, as some hipster types who’d been eavesdropping had inched over and prodded Dorothy for stories about the old days. Completely loosened up now, like a drunken sorority girl, Dorothy more than obliged, and we all enjoyed about an hour of rich depression-era tales.
Back on the stoop later, as I hugged her goodbye, she admitted that while it wasn’t the best Christmas she’d ever had, nor even the best hot dog, both certainly ranked right up there. Maybe even in the top five.  “I’m 88, do the math”, she said.
Then she kissed me on the cheek and said  “See you on Valentine’s Day.”
This story recently appeared under the title “The Christmas date” in the Capitol Hill Times.

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