Sacred Spaces

Life’s Arc on One Bench

On what should have been a very short subway ride yesterday morning from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to the Dumbo area of Brooklyn with my friend and cohort member K., we stood in front of a seated elderly woman, who was looking down at her lap. She was tiny, the bones in her face delicate, her skin thin and wrinkled, her shoe tips barely touching the floor beneath her seat. Her haircut’s gray bangs and bob peaked out from under her warm knit hat, and she balanced a stack of blank, white, 8-1/2” x 11” papers on her knees, on the top one of which she was writing in a tight, small script with an old-school, gold-trimmed, refillable ballpoint pen. I have a lot of practice reading script—as a former middle- and high-school English teacher that included the era that pre-dated students carrying laptops everywhere and submitting their typed work online—and I also practiced reading script upside down when I was myself a middle- and high-school student. All that is to confess with some context that I glanced down at her writing long enough—and, I hope, surreptitiously enough—to determine that she was writing either a finely detailed short story or a vignette from her own life, a past moment captured in the present, during a train car full of morning commuters. K. and I are in a research cluster together where we examine the issues of feminine aging—ways in which time, memory, and the body intersect and separate, as well as our lived experiences with these processes—and we agreed that the universe had offered us a glimpse, a resonant portrait of this woman, only made possible because we had overshot our intended stop and needed to switch underground directions.

As the train slowed to a stop at our actual destination and K. and I prepared to disembark, we stood briefly in front of a mother and her young toddler daughter at the other end of the same bench on the train. The pre-verbal little girl sat on her diaper-padded seat, legs and feet almost entirely horizontal in front of her, clothed in walk-training shoes, pink sweatpants, a puffy jacket, a hand-crocheted and brightly colored patterned scarf, and a knit hat pulled down over her silky, dark curls to her wide-open, brown eyes. With all the curiosity and trust of a well-loved and -cared for child, she stared into my eyes, held her gaze, and smiled, and her mother giggled as I complimented her daughter’s pants and scarf, all the colors, all the delight. And there it was: One person nearer the end of life’s journey; the other person near the beginning of the journey; the two arranged on opposite ends of the bench to illustrate our contemplations; K. and I mostly feeling somewhere in the middle, but actually (if math and statistics hold) closer to the end and much closer in age to our older sister than to one of our youngest ones.