The Chicory Lady

Last month we went to Comerica Park to watch the Detroit Tigers take on the Minnesota Twins. Traffic slowed to a tangle near the stadium, allowing long looks out the window at dingy scenery. But a clump of chicory grew bravely out of a crack in the pavement against the backdrop of a cement barrier, creating a surprise spot of beauty among tattered paper cups and plastic bags and their trashy cohorts.

Chicory is my favorite wildflower. It grew with grace and vibrancy among the Queen Anne’s Lace in the ditches along the half-mile stretch of gravel road between my childhood home and my grandparents’ red house. Every year I’d try picking some, but even when plunged directly into water the chicory’s petals would close—not so much from weakness, it seemed (it can grow in cracked concrete, after all), but from stubbornness. It didn’t wilt; it folded up, not wanting to play the game of being picked. Chicory: sweet and gentle. Tough and resilient. Stubborn. Nobody’s fool.

An hour after the chicory had welcomed us on the highway, we had found our way through the park and into our seats behind the third baseline. The occupants of the row behind us wore matching blue T-shirts bearing the name of an adult day care center— several senior citizens, flanked by caregivers, out to enjoy the game. Most of them wore name tags around their necks.

Before we were completely settled in, one of the women leaned forward and started fiddling with my bag, which was under J’s seat next to mine. Perhaps it was in her way; maybe she wanted to stretch her legs and couldn’t because of the bag. “No,” she said when I inquired, folding the top of the bag over a couple of times and giving it a pat. “I just want to make sure nobody reaches in and grabs something from your bag. Steals something. That happens sometimes, you know. That’d be too bad if it happened to you.” She smiled, reassured that my bag was as it should be.

Next up: the announcer asked us to rise for a soloist’s delivery of the national anthem. We stood and listened, except for the aforementioned woman, who sang. Her friend stage-whispered to her, self-conscious: “I don’t think this is sing-along time. I think this is listen-to-the-singer time.” The woman was unmoved. “But I’m going to sing, though,” she said. And she did.

During the second inning J took Sonny, Ace, and their cousin to get their promised hotdog and soft drink. They returned bearing three hotdogs but only one soft drink; it seemed that the other two had spilled. (Don’t assume that the demise of two soft drinks was not a problem. It was. I assure you.) J got the boys seated and headed back to the concession area to redeem the soft drink situation. The woman, who had overheard the dark reports of being handed soft drinks with no tops in a tray that didn’t hold the cups securely, was concerned—concerned enough to lean over my shoulder.

“Do you need some water up there?” she asked. “It’s so, so hot. That sun is just beating right down.” I thanked her and said that we’d be fine; we had brought plenty of water with us, and besides J would return soon with replacement drinks.

“Are you sure?” she said. “It’s very hot. You could dry right up. You all need to drink something. You’ll dry up otherwise.”

That she didn’t have any water to share didn’t matter. She thought she did, and if she had, she would have shared it.

“Well, all right,” she finally conceded.

Now she pointed to Ace.  “I’m afraid that that hotdog he’s eating is just going to squirt right on out of that bun,” she said. “It’s sitting too loose. Can you poke it back in tighter? It’d be awful if he lost it. He’d hate that.” She watched closely until he stuffed the last bite safely into his mouth. Relief.

Perhaps inspired by Ace’s snack, she tried to order her own hotdog from the vendor touting refreshments in the aisle ten seats away. “Just toss it to me,” she hollered. “I’ll catch it!” The vendor believed her.

“Did you say you want ketchup with it?” he asked, reaching for a hotdog.

“No,” she said. “Said I’d catch it. Just toss it my way.”

One of the caretakers snapped off the transaction with a shake of his head and dismissive wave to the vendor, who caught on and continued up the steps.

“Hey!” the woman objected. “I’ll get you back for that. I get people back for things like that, you know!” The caretaker, not unnerved by her threats, turned his attention to urging her to put her name tag back on.

“Why?” she said. “I don’t need a name tag. I know who I am. So do you.”

“It’s in case something happens. Then someone will be able to know where you’re supposed to be.”

“I always know where I’m at,” she said.

One of our players hit a double. A tap on the shoulder. “He can really hustle his bustle, can’t he?” she said. “Look at him.” She nodded approvingly—whether at his hustle or at his bustle, I wasn’t sure—before leaning back and cheering.

At the seventh inning, when the last call for beer sales was announced, she offered to buy a beer for anyone who thought that sounded good. The caretaker: “No beer.”

“Why not? This is our last chance. I’d even buy you one.”

“You don’t have any money with you, and besides you don’t need a beer.”

Grumbling. “No beer today, I guess. Maybe next time,” she apologized to her friend. They both stood for the seventh-inning stretch and danced together to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and the little bit of “Brown-Eyed Girl” played before the game resumed.

Then she leaned forward and adjusted my bag again. “Got to be careful, honey. Someone could just reach right in and grab something. That’d be too bad.”

The eighth inning came to a close. The caretakers stood up and announced it was time to go.

Another shoulder tap. “You have such nice boys there,” she said, nodding toward my sons and nephew, who were eating cotton candy sprinkled liberally with Skittles. (Don’t ask.) “I’ve been watching them the whole game. They’re good kids. I’m so glad they’re having fun! Look at them having so much fun!” She smiled proudly.

Wise caretakers, getting while the getting was good, before the throngs clogged an easy exit. But I was sorry the group was leaving. I liked the woman who’d conversed with us, who had wanted to help us, whose vivacity had spilled into our row. She reminded me of chicory. Sweet and gentle. Tough and resilient. Stubborn. Nobody’s fool. She reminded me that those who shun kindness as indicative of weakness are not seeing straight.

I want to be like her when I am old. Sweet and gentle. Tough and resilient. Stubborn. (Sorry, Sonny and Ace.) Nobody’s fool.

Her kindnesses were small—attentiveness to our bag, concern for our drink and food, offers of humor, encouragement regarding the kids—but flowed from her naturally and relentlessly. She reminded me of a line from a book I read years ago. The book’s title and author and even the topic have long escaped me, but this bit of wisdom sticks:  “You don’t just wake up a sweet old lady.”

Clearly this lady had had practice.

Clearly being like her requires practice also. Guess it’s time to get started.

I’m going for a walk tomorrow. I hope I will see some chicory. It won’t work to pick any, but maybe I’ll take a photo. It would be a good reminder.

 

 

Advertisements