I’m on a flight from New York to Minneapolis. We’re in descent, in that gray space between “please turn off all electronic devices” and landing. I’m in a window seat reading from a Truman Capote anthology.
I’m lost with Capote on some wayward travel when, over the hum of airplane engines and the crinkling of flight attendants’ trash bags, I hear behind me the distinct drawl of a feminine southern accent. I can’t see the woman speaking, but her voice is brittle. I guess she’s in her eighties. She’s been silent until now.
“Oh, thank you sweetheart,” she says.
“Not a problem,” a man responds.
“I just can’t keep these damn things in my pocketbook. They’re always the first to go.”
Pills rattle in a plastic bottle.
“What’s your name, sweetheart?”
“Paul. And my grandmother is just the same. You think they’d make those bottles easier to hold onto.”
“You’re telling me,” she says and hiccups. I imagine she’s resting her hand on her chest to stall heartburn. “You remind me of my grandson, but I guess everyone your age does. Can’t see worth a damn and hear even worse. And, lord, if I didn’t tell that to a woman once. I sure didn’t mean anything by it, but she got into a hissy.”
My book is open in my lap, but I’ve stopped reading it. I stare at individual words but am too distracted to put them together. The conversation behind me makes me nostalgic for home, small-town North Carolina.
“You got a girl at home? You sure are handsome.”
“Headed home to see her now, actually. I go to school at NYU. Sarah is her name. Where are you going?”
“Well, I guess you might say I’m headed home, too. I’m not from Minneapolis, though. I’ve never even been. I’m from Atlanta. Minneapolis is too cold for a young southern thing like me. One of my sons is out there, though. Just saw his brother in New York. First time I was on a plane, that trip, and was as yellow as a dog. I hung on to the man next to me like he was the last man in the world.”
“How is Minneapolis home if you’re not from there?” Paul asks, and the question goes unanswered for an uncomfortably long time.
“This is my last trip anywhere,” she says. “I’m 88 years old and they say I can’t take care of myself anymore, so my son is putting me in a home and strangers are going to take care of me. He’s too busy to watch after me, he said.”
I’m looking out of my window when she says this. Lights from downtown twinkle like a bunch of fallen stars. I close my book.
“You know, I lived in the same house my mama did when she was a little girl. It still smells like her, and like my daddy. It smells like the powder she put on her face, and just like his chewing tobacco. Nothing was harder than leaving it. I thought I never would.” She sniffles and blows her nose on what I imagine is a Kleenex usually kept tucked inside her blouse.
“I got to pack two suitcases of things, including my clothes. Ruth and I got in about a hundred pictures and only three outfits.” She laughs like she’s trying not to cry. “And there you have it. Those are the only things I’ll have when I die. Two suitcases full of memories, out of 88 years living them. Ain’t that something.”
I picture an old woman closing the front door to a small, dated-but-tidy home and taking a last peek inside, to look at picture frames placed on lace table napkins, on old television sets, bookshelves, coffee tables, and by her bed—memories with her children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
“They’re going to sell my house and all my things are going into storage where no one will see them, where they’ll get old and dusty and be things that no one wants. And one day they’ll throw it all away. Like me.”
The downtown twinkle blurs in tears. I wish I weren’t hearing this.
“I’m…I’m sorry,” Paul says.
“Now don’t you worry about a thing, you hear? Look at me anyhow, an ugly ol’ woman talking to such a charming young man. I didn’t mean to trouble you. Your girl’s got you coming home, and there ain’t nothin’ better than that.”
The plane’s landing gear emerges and I put away my book. I close my eyes to revisit memories of my own grandmother, of running through sprinklers and chasing turkeys in her backyard. I hear her telling stories of when she was a little girl and I feel wooden clothespins in my hand, helping hang bedsheets on her clothesline. I can smell her moisturizer and feel her skin.
The plane lands and parks, passengers stand, and now is my opportunity to turn around for a glimpse of the woman behind me, but I don’t. I can’t. I can’t look at her because in the distance between “please turn off all electronic devices” and landing, she’s become the most important part of me. Seeing her would make things too real. Seeing her would mean she isn’t just a tragic character in one of Capote’s adventures. Seeing her now would mean seeing my grandmother.
“Well, thank you for keeping me company, young man. Tell that Sarah girl to keep you behaved. And get home safe, you hear?”