When we speed through our days, small gifts of heart-warming moments and meaningful life experiences can easily slip through our fingers. I was blessed with such a moment at my neighborhood Staples store this week. The Universe conspired with the Heavens the day I met the indomitable, eighty-plus year old, Miss Jeannie. I’m very glad I had nowhere to rush to that day.
I was waiting at the counter for my printing order when an elderly black woman approached. I was immediately drawn to her. She wore a short-sleeved floral blouse with a safety pin attached to one button, and a plaid skirt that hugged her calves. I noticed another safety pin holding her skirt together at the waist.
The young man helping me waved at her and asked if she had a little time to wait as he was working on my order. She smiled warmly and said, “I have all the time in the world,” to which he replied, “You’re the best, Miss Jeannie! Be with you just as soon as I can.”
“I come in here once a week,” she told me. I loved her warm energy. She told me she speaks at her church about health and wellness. I was impressed. I introduced myself and thanked the diminutive Miss Jeannie for her patience, adding I didn’t think it would take much longer for my order.
“No problem, honey,” she said with a beautiful smile. She inched over and placed a well-worn 8×12 collage on the counter. “I only need one enlarged copy and don’t mind waiting. What else do I have to do today? Nothing on my agenda!”
What a doll, I thought. She smoothed back her short gray hair with an elegant hand and asked my opinion about removing a specific photo she’d taped to the collage. I said the poster looked great and congratulated her on her artistic eye which made her giggle. Then, her dark eyes twinkled as if in anticipation of a big secret. “Watcha waitin’ on?”
“Oh! I’m waiting for a poster of my book cover, 500 postcards, and 500 business cards to hand out at a book festival I’m participating in on Saturday. I want to be prepared, Miss Jeannie!” She agreed and I immediately felt bad about having such a large order ahead of her. I told the young man to wait on Miss Jeannie and I’d return before the store’s closing time to pick up my stuff. I surely didn’t want her leave on my account.
She held up her hand. “No, I will wait my turn. Tell me what your book.”
Now, I’ve written dozens of query letters regarding my book and I’ve blogged about my book for years. Do you, dear reader, think I could give this kind lady a brief synopsis about my book? Negative. Nothing and everything came to mind! In my urge to include everything, I came up with nothing. Why was I so nervous? So, I read her the short synopsis of my historical novel, A Decent Woman, as it was printed on the sample postcard:
‘At the turn of the century, male-dominated Puerto Rico was a chaotic, uncertain, and hard place for a woman to survive; especially one with a secretive past, which if discovered, threatens her future. With twenty years of slavery behind her, Afro-Cuban Ana Belén, is a midwife who reverently fuses Catholicism with her vivid ancestral Yoruba traditions. Ana forms an unlikely friendship with a Puerto Rican socialite that sustains them through years of parallel tragedies and the betrayals of men who want to rule them.
Spell-binding and insightful, A Decent Woman is a story of fate, choices, sacrifice and love. The combustive backdrop of 1900 Puerto Rico after the United States invasion of the island offers a provocative look into the complex lives of women of that era.’
“May I see the postcard?” I handed it to her. As she read, I wondered if she was surprised or confused by something I’d said. I didn’t know why I felt a bit anxious, but I did.
“You wrote this book?” I nodded. “Well, now. A black heroine.” I nodded and she looked up at me with curious eyes. “Why did you write this story?” Despite her gentle and kind tone of voice, my throat seemed to close a bit.
“Well, I was born in Puerto Rico and the character of the midwife Ana was based on my Puerto Rican grandmother’s midwife who delivered my mother and her siblings.” I then showed her the image of the book cover from my cell phone. It all seemed to come together for her. Well, that Miss Jeannie lowered her reading glasses, looked at me intently and said, “Young lady, I’m going to buy this book of yours and can’t wait to tell the church ladies about it!” The church ladies! Oh, oh. My story has crime, punishment, love, sex, murder, abuse…
I moved in closer and said in a low voice, “Now Miss Jeannie, this book is kinda raw. It’s not a love story, okay?”
“Yes, I already gathered that,” she said, holding up the postcard, laughing. We shared a good laugh and I greatly relieved she might not hand the postcard back to me before leaving the store.
“The lives of women in 1900 Puerto Rico were difficult and challenging, and the lives of Afro-Caribbean women were nearly impossible. Sometimes they got caught up in less than desirable situations because of what life threw at them.”
Miss Jeannie was thoughtful and then nodded. “Oh, I understand that. My girl, you were chosen to write this story and you tell the TRUTH, you hear?”
“I’ve told the truth, Miss Jeannie,” I answered with tears forming in the corners of my eyes. Why was I so emotional? “I’ve done a lot of research and spoken to many women with good memories, but it’s also a work of fiction.”
“I get it. You are giving a voice to the women who didn’t have a voice back then.” I agreed with her. I answered her questions about slavery in the West Indies and about African influences in Puerto Rican language, food, music and culture. Miss Jeannie seemed pleased with what she heard and then, we spoke about Puerto Rico which had been on her bucket list for years. “I’ll never get there, you know. I don’t have a passport anymore, so I’ll read your book and feel like I’ve just taken a trip to the islands!” Well, I wanted to adopt Miss Jeannie right then and there.
Through our conversation, I learned she’d worked as a nurse at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, DC for over twenty-five years. We discovered we’re both ex-pats in our adopted state of West Virginia. She has three children, nine grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. She beamed as she gave me the names and ages of every single one. Miss Jeannie is sharp as a tack and a pure joy to know.
Minutes later, the young man handed me a box containing my postcards and business cards, and the poster of my book cover. I paid, thanked him for his super work, and hugged Miss Jeannie. I offered her twenty postcards to give out to her church ladies! She asked me to autograph a postcard for her which made me smile. When I turned to leave, I heard her say, “You know, I’ve changed my mind about enlarging this poster. I’ll see you next week, young man.”
Driving home, I smiled at how nervous I’d been giving her the synopsis, of receiving her feedback, and possibly of an early negative review from her! I think she enjoyed our conversation as much as I did. I will never forget Miss Jeannie. When my book comes out in the fall, I will return to Staples with an autographed copy of A Decent Woman for her as I didn’t think to ask for her contact information before I left. I hope I see her again.
Miss Jeannie was on my mind today and I wanted to share this story with you before the weekend gets away from me. Let’s remember to take the time to sit and visit with our elderly relatives, friends and neighbors. They have much to teach us. This kind lady tested me as a writer, a Latina, and as a woman. Thanks to her and the great experience I had at the Berkeley Springs WV Book Festival, I now have the short synopsis of my book memorized!
Thanks, Miss Jeannie! God bless you. XO