Old ladies at the gas station

This week, my husband and I took our 18 month old son out for breakfast. It was rare for us to spend a quiet morning together, the girls settled at their schools, and my cleaning person busy stripping the beds and scrubbing the floors after a necessary extermination to get rid of a horrible ant problem. We decided to walk a couple of blocks to a restaurant behind the gas station in our neighborhood. It’s really a great brunch place in the middle of a complex that includes a burger joint, pizza place, the nuts and spices shop, a supermarket, and some office buildings.

We meandered, watching our son enjoy his rare freedom outside of his stroller. His belly leading the way for his feet to catch up, a smile plastered across his face, his gap teeth on display. He tripped and ran forward, chasing the brown birds already looking for some shade from the sweltering Middle Eastern sun. We approached the restaurant and were met by a waitress, her genuine smile and youthful skin made me pull self consciously on my sweat stained bandana and adjust my over-sized sunglasses over my baggy eyes.  She gestured to the outdoor tables, discretely hidden from most of the foot traffic but with a generous view of the gas station attendants already hard at work on the morning flow of traffic. We chose a table out of the way of people, unnaturally tilted by the slanting of the concrete to keep water from flooding the restaurant and flowing down the mountain to whatever streams swell in the winter at the base of Jerusalem.

As our server hauled the highchair over to out table, I placed my feet on one of the wrought iron legs to keep the table steady for our breakfast. We ordered brunch fare: cold decaf coffee and freshly squeezed juices, Mexican shakshuka and French omelettes. A child’s meal that came with butter and milk drenched biscuits that I had to hide beneath the napkins and out of reach of my baby’s excited hands. His dairy allergy always at the forefront of my mind, I plied him with french baguettes schmeared with avocado spread and tuna fish. My husband and I listened to the 90’s track piped through speakers, the Breeders cannonballing through the last splash. Our conversation ebbed and flowed smoothly, while our hands danced through the motions of having breakfast with a toddler. A swipe of food off the nose with one hand while lifting a glass of juice to take a sip. Blowing the heat off of slightly overdone scrambled eggs before allowing his chubby fingers to shovel food into his already stuffed mouth.

The meal ended quickly, and we signaled our server for the check, glancing at our watches to see how much longer until the baby’s morning nap. I felt relaxed and at ease for the first time in ages, living in the moment as opposed to dwelling on the pressures of work and life. I apologized to our server for the trail of food that generously littered the floor beneath our table, a treasure map with the X squarely beneath my son’s highchair. She laughed it off with a wave of her hand, and thanked us for the tip. I did the Mommy count before leaving a restaurant, making sure I had all the baby paraphernalia we constant travel with, before catching up with my husband. He pushed the umbrella stroller gently with one hand while keeping pace with our son, whose gait slowed slightly by the later hour and the food in his belly. The baby’s gap toothed smile wider than ever as he navigated the walkway like an impish drunk.

I almost missed them, my gaze trained forward on my son. But something caught my attention, and I stopped to glance in their direction. Perhaps it was the motion of this cushioned swing that seemed out of place in the gas station. The large brown swing belonged in a private garden, next to a pond surrounded by deer sculptures and pebble pathways. They swung gently, back and forth, back and forth. The old ladies at the gas station were related, a familial resemblance obvious by the bone structure of their noses. The younger one controlled the motion of the swing, pushing off with one brown sandaled toe. Alone, she would have blended into the crowd, camouflaged by her coffee colored pants and tan shirt.  Her wrinkled skin and blunt haircut with reams of grey creating an ashy hue that came from drugstore boxes of hair dye. Next to her, sat the woman that held my attention, her feet dangling inches off of the sidewalk. Her hair was washed and blown dry to resemble cotton candy fresh on a stick, while her white clothing were clean and pressed. You could tell someone was taking very good care of this 93 year old woman; she was clearly very loved. Her facial expression was downright blissful as she enjoyed the rocking motion of the swing, and the chocolate ice cream cone in her hand. A shmudge of chocolate the only colored line on her alabaster face, she licked her treat without a care in the world, or the slightest self consciousness of a dirty face.

“May I take your photo, please.” I asked.

“No,” came the curt, quick response from the caregiver.

“OK, thank you,” I said, and smiled.

I hovered for a moment and then continued on my way, devastated that she wouldn’t allow me to take a picture. To capture a moment that I fear words would never be able to fully express.

I caught up with my husband, oblivious to anything but our child, and gestured behind me at the ladies at the gas station. Stop, I told him, and look. Take in this moment. This is what I want out of life.

And as the missiles resume in the South of Israel, and my children wrestle on the floor over a silk scarf they both want, as I take a step off the scale and sigh at the number, as my spouse shakes his head over quarrels with the neighbors, and as we look at our bank accounts and our expenses and wonder how it will all get paid, as we prepare for another 100 degree weather week and one car, as we wonder if we are heading for another War with our enemies, as we think about how in vogue Anti-Semitism is throughout Europe and the US, as we watch our children reach milestones, as we dream of summer cottages we can never afford, and family vacations, and Shabbat meals with friends, and attending events in Israel without thinking about security, or how our children will one day serve in the army, as we navigate our way through all of life’s stresses and aggravations, and life’s uncertainties and life certainties.

I think about the old ladies at the gas station. Swinging gently on the swing, having lived a lifetime. The cold, sweat taste of ice cream on their lips at 10:00 a.m., and not a worry or care in the world.

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