I saw her as I was returning from some routine grocery shopping on a busy street. I was in the left-hand lane waiting for the turn signal. She was sitting on the sidewalk in a white plastic chair. The first thing I noticed about her was her striking, long white hair. It fanned out, fluffed and looking cared for, framing a gaunt, dark face. The contrast between her hair and face was enough to draw attention. She looked like she was American Indian with perhaps some Asian characteristics thrown in. Her nose and cheekbones were prominent, her skin creviced. She was small in stature and her bones almost delicate.
What was most compelling was the look on her face. It was intense--just shy of fierce. Not angry, but rather in some determined rumination. In the two minutes I observed her that expression did not change once, but she seemed very aware of her surroundings. She kept looking around, and when she noticed me staring at her through my tinted car window, she stared back at me. Not wanting to seem impolite, I looked away, inventing new pretenses to look back, and whenever I did, her gaze, which wandered from side to side, came right back to mine. It was a little eerie that she could tell she was being watched from a car. And it was discomforting because though I found her face compelling, I couldn't watch her tactfully. For the first time in my life, I was thankful for a long stoplight.
There was something about this old woman's unsmiling concentration that drew me in, gave me a sensation of being sucked into her aura which seemed deep, powerful. I fervently wished I could paint so that I could capture her. It's a much harder task in word pictures. Perhaps I could have taken a photo with my phone, but how rude that would be and how possibly embarrassing for her.
It was clear that she was taken care of. Her clothes were neat, if inappropriate for a hot day. She was wearing dark colors: a shirt with a heavy sweater over it, long pants and heavy-looking ankle boots. But the elderly often dress warmly on hot days, either because they are cold or because they are indifferent to temperature due to dementia or because this is what they are used to and making new decisions doesn't seem relevant anymore.
Though I've traveled this street for years, I have never seen this woman before. She sat outside a couple of tiny, old bungalows rather out of place in the upscale neighborhood. I believe the idea that we can tell about people just by looking at them is usually false. The only thing that I could tell about this woman was that she was cared for. But who had put her in the chair? Had she sat down by herself? Were her faculties intact? She must be somewhat aware to be sitting alone. An Alzheimer's victim might take to straying away or getting up and walking blithely into traffic. (Or, on the dark side, maybe there were relatives who were hoping she would?) And why would she sit by the street and watch traffic pass? Was that interesting to her? Why not sit closer to the house and watch the birds and flowers.
With that intriguing attitude what had her life been like? Who knows if she was kindly or mean? Or if she even spoke English. It would have been fascinating to interview her. Why was I drawn to her inner mood like a spell cast over me? What kind of life etched those lines in that ethnic face? She was almost reminiscent of Georgia O'Keefe. Yes, that was it. That was my fantasy I attached to her. The look of a passionate artist still proud in the face of age's decrepitude.
I have thought of knocking on one of the bungalow doors some day and asking about her, but I never have. Perhaps if I solved the mystery of the old lady it would lose some of its power?
I have looked for her ever since, but never seen her again. Was she even there?
That corner will never be the same for me.
A two-minute encounter. A presence that stays with me. A reminder that each life can have an effect on us, can have a story, but what that story is we may never know.