I was on a cross-country flight recently on my way to visit family. I boarded the plane and sat down next to an older lady who smiled at me even though I accidentally bumped her arm with my bag. The lady appeared to be African-American, quite small in frame. She was seated next to the window, with her sweater cupped over her shoulders like a blanket. I noticed her dainty hands; they reminded me of my mom’s. Her fingers were slender and crooked, knotted at the joints from a lifetime of use, but still smooth and well manicured. She wore a diamond band on her left ring finger. The lady’s complexion was the color of a golden brown Bartlett pear when perfectly ripe. She had a few freckles sprinkled across the bridge of her nose like pixie dust that gave her face a sparkle that matched her eyes. Her clothes were classic business that could’ve been purchased last week or 30 years ago, and her hair was neatly coiffed, showing less gray than mine. Early in the flight, the attendant came around to serve drinks, and as I passed the lady’s cup of water over to her, we began one of those typical airplane conversations.
I introduced myself and told her I was on my way to visit my grandkids. She said her name was Evelyn, and she was on her way to Atlanta to see her grandniece. Her voice was clear and kind, and reminded me of my favorite teacher from second grade. When the flight attendant handed out the airline shortbread cookies, I told Evelyn I would save mine and give them to my grandkids in reply to their “What did you bring me?” question. Evelyn thought this was a good idea, and she would give hers to her grandniece and nephew in Atlanta. But, they would have to read a Bible verse out loud to her first to earn their cookies. Evelyn and I began to talk about parenting and grandparenting, and how kids are different today than when we grew up. Young people today have no work ethic, according to Evelyn. They want everything handed to them, she said, and when things don’t go their way, it’s always somebody else’s fault. Evelyn spoke these words not with anger, but with truth and integrity, and a bit of sadness.
She told me she had completed a career as a writer and curriculum developer for an agency in her home state. Evelyn said she had been retired from that work for 20 years. If I do the math, that probably makes her now in her 80s. She didn’t mention how many years she had been married, but Evelyn told me that her husband died 10 years ago. Her daughter worries about her still living on her own, and Evelyn thought that was just silly. I asked Evelyn if she traveled often, and this opened up a book of stories from her library of memories. She told me about traveling all over the United States, just too many cities to count. Then, Evelyn began to tell me about a trip she took with her sister in the late 1980s to China. It was a dream vacation to a place that Evelyn had always wanted to go. She spoke at length and in vivid detail about her trip to China like she had been there just yesterday. She painted pictures with words of the ornate Buddhist temples and the opulent shrines and monuments in Beijing.
But, Evelyn seemed most enamored with the people of China as she admired their grace and dignity living under the pressures of their closed society. She described how their Chinese tour guides seemed grateful for the interaction with outsiders, yet nervous about staying on-script and making sure that the tourists didn’t ask too many questions or observe things they weren’t supposed to. Evelyn giggled as she told me about slipping away unnoticed from the tour group once to explore one of the temples on her own. She hoped she didn’t get her tour guide in trouble with his superiors with her rebellion. Evelyn reflected on telling her sister, as they observed the constricted daily lives of the Chinese citizens, “These people are not going to stand for this for much longer.” Enter Tiananmen Square.
Was Evelyn prophetic? Perhaps. Empathetic? More than likely, as Oppression is a distinct and esoteric club. Look, I could never know, and I don’t pretend to know, what it meant to be an African American female during Evelyn’s time. But, I do know that she would have every right to be bitter and hateful for what she has lived through. Yet, there was no acrimony in her words, no resentment, no malevolence. All I saw in Evelyn was strength and wisdom and grace. I said goodbye to Evelyn at the end of our flight. I never saw where she went in the airport, I never saw her grandnieces and nephews meet her. I guess I wanted to see that movie moment when it all came together, all wrapped up in a neat little package. Life rarely happens that way, don’t I know. But, two hours on an airplane with Evelyn taught me that you can be strong without being hard, wise without being judgmental, and beautiful no matter what.