I was intrigued by the elderly couple who sat across from us at the restaurant. It was her, really, that called my attention. She had to be in her late seventies, perhaps early eighties. And she was beautiful in a hearty New England way. I would venture that she might not have been considered beautiful in her youth, but at that moment, as the beauty of others her age faded, she was vibrant. She was robust, not lithe; her face full and happy; her skin porcelain and glowing. Her eyes were blue, but what struck me most was that the lids did not sag with the heaviness of age. Those eyes sparkled large and childlike. She drank a cocktail and breezily chatted with the gentleman who sat across from her and whose back was to me. I gleaned that he was older, mid-eighties maybe. He sat hunched over. His head was nearly bald.
It was a dreary, gray day, warm for December but winter nonetheless, and it seemed that the only place to be was a warm New England restaurant. The key was to ignore the view from the window and attend only to those who, like yourself, sought refuge from winter under the soft lamplight of that place. As we shared a bowl of mussels, my husband, children and I chatted about our son’s birthday and Christmas and the wonderful things we planned to do over the winter recess, while the couple across from us appeared to do the same.
There was a gorgeous bouquet of peach and white roses on our neighbor’s table. Their anniversary I figured. “How wonderful,” I thought. How long must they have been married? Fifty years, give or take? And still, seeming so much in love. They chatted away, her voice somewhat high pitched and girlish. She reached across the table for her companion’s hand. She smiled and giggled and sipped her cocktail, and, at one point, she belly laughed. It was the kind of deep, uncontrollable, sincere laugh that, unfortunately, we seldom experience. She laughed so heartily that, try as she might, she couldn’t stop herself. It was only after about five minutes that she was able to regain her composure. Only, you didn’t want her to stop for the sound of her laugh was so cheerful.
Later, a guest from another table, approached the couple to congratulate them on their anniversary. I heard the guest inquire how long they had been married, and I waited for the response, certain for it to be forty, fifty, perhaps even sixty years. The elderly lady smiled and said, “It’s our one year anniversary.”
Suddenly, the entire narrative I had created for our neighbors dissolved; yet, they were still so captivating, so charming, more so perhaps. Now there were so many questions. What had her life been like? Did she spend the first thirty years of her adulthood in a loveless marriage? Was she widowed while raising young children? Did she have any children? Maybe she didn’t have any. That might account for youthfulness.
The couple continued on, laughing and chatting. And then she said, “Here we are. Having this lovely lunch in this beautiful restaurant, then we will go home and sit and it will be over.” She reached for her partner’s hand again and smiled and looked at her roses and grew silent just for a moment. The waitress returned and she immediately resumed her happy chatter, commenting that the when she returns she would love it if the sangria had whole blueberries in it. She ordered dessert for herself and her husband-they would share a piece of chocolate cake.
How she worked to hold onto that beautiful late afternoon lunch. I understood. I looked at my husband and our two children. He and I somewhat bewildered to find ourselves in our forties, still with the silly hopes and dreams we shared in our twenties, but different now, tired, worried. And our children. One who has so many struggles and the other who seems to navigate through life with ease but who already shoulders the weight of being the one for whom things seem to come easier. The four of us sharing a beautiful few hours. Just us. In that place. Wanting to stop time. To remain just as we were in that moment.
As the sky outside the window grew darker we were realized our moment was over. Afternoon was gone, having slipped away under a cloak of charcoal sky. Our neighbors stood up to leave. She, tall and straight and carrying her vase of flowers, led the way to the exit. He, fragile and stooped, followed slowly behind. I prayed they would return again for another anniversary.