She walked into the voting poll, with a quiet elegance , but not the wealthy kind typical of old money and blue blood. More of the kind who was simply raised well with good standards and taught the difference from right and wrong. Her age was probably around the mid eighties, with kind eyes, the ones that smile without a the necessary matching grin. She was the type of woman who seemed to have had a nice long life, probably had children who enjoyed her as much as she enjoyed them. She had on the sweetest of sweaters, fleece, cream colored, tucked under a raincoat because it had in fact been raining buckets. She seemed to be the pragmatic type, covered in the gear necessary to keep her dry, but with the old school practicality of needing to be warm too. Probably left her umbrella by the door to be more considerate so the rain droppings weren’t left in the voting booth for the next voter. The slight glimpse of the sweater confirmed it was very clean and cared for just like her house probably is or was. This woman likely came from the generation of stoic salty ladies who got their hair done snow sleet or hurricane every Friday. She was likely the type of woman who changed her curtains and bedding with the seasons, stripped to bare bones, cleaning walls using a ladder while their husbands were off to the factory or the post office job. Her children were raised with good manners, and were taught from the early days that chores were the simple part of being a child in their house, taking the trash out, washing and drying the dishes, no dishwasher in this house, raking leaves, and helping out on Saturdays with the dusting to get the house ready for Sunday dinners. After church of course. She never missed church, one imagined. She was likely at least a third generation in this small town and had seen her town inflate with each passing year with outsiders, carpetbaggers and people she no longer recognized as she made her way on the errands of the week, the post office to buy stamps and mail her monthly bills, the local drug store to pick up her prescriptions and the market for the few items she would need for the small meals she found herself making these days.
Greeting her with a happy smile, then showing her where to put the ballot, I noticed all of her layers, but it was the red splash of color peaking out beneath the raincoat that drew me to her. That made me assess all of these assumptions about her quiet life, because my eyes were simply drawn to the redness that found itself on her fleece sweater. I didn’t want to seem like I was invading her privacy. I didn’t know her until that moment, but the familiarity of the emblazoned cardinals on the lapel of her fleece sweater caught my eye.
“I LOVE YOUR SWEATER.” I said to her with an enthusiastic brightness that required a reply. She immediately placed her right hand to her lapel, like she was getting ready to cover her heart for the pledge of allegiance. Her eyes lit up, her smile extended into a big grin, but a humbled one, like the observation from a total stranger peaked into her heart in a way she hadn’t anticipated on a rainy evening on the eve of a mid term election.
“I have a story about the cardinal, “ she said in almost embarrassed way in a way that made me think she doubted I might believe her. She hesitated for a brief moment. I could feel it. It was very busy at that time, but I have my own stories about cardinals and I couldn’t pass up a chance to hear hers. I also had a feeling that her story was an opportunity for connection. I managed to find the clerk and ask him to man the machine so I could take a break and listen. She began the story quietly.
“ A cardinal flew into my open car window and wouldn’t leave, even when I walked over to the car and opened the doors. He stood on the dashboard and watched me for a moment. I left the doors open and decided to walk away. I watched him from my porch and he finally flew out and landed on the porch staring, like he knew me. I always loved cardinals, so I stood there and we watched each other. Then he flew away. The next day, I was in the kitchen and there he was again, in the same spot on my back porch. I gingerly walked towards the door, this time with some bread and placed a few pieces down slowly moving back as to not startle him, he approached the bread with confidence as if were old friends and ate it hungrily. I watched him and he looked up at me almost nodding with gratitude and flew away. The same thing happened the next day and the next and this went on for almost a full week. Then I didn’t see him again, but it was such an interesting experience. This sweater makes me remember him.” She smiled at me hoping that I would believe her.
I smiled broadly, knowingly, and found myself with barely a hesitation saying, “That is a magical story, has anyone important in your life died recently? “ She paused, surprised by my question for a split second and said, “Yes. As a matter of fact my husband had just died, he has been gone now for three years.”
Without hesitation, I said, “Cardinals are known for showing up after someone dies, perhaps your husband was there to say hello and one last goodbye, letting you know that everything was going to be alright. They are miracles for sure.”
I have known this magic about cardinals since my own father died and since others have moved on showing up in the oddest of times, singing on a quiet morning, landing on a tree at an arms length. Every single time, I have seen the bright red beauty, I am reminded that yes, everything is going to be alright. This has been happening since I separated from my husband almost eight years ago. They give me comfort and gratitude in the briefest of moments. I was all too happy to share this with her, somehow knowing she would understand immediately.
She did. I could tell by the immediate tear that welled up in her eye.She smiled with so much love, and longing. “I never heard that before, thank you for saying that. “
I wished I could have asked her for her phone number so we could hang out. I haven’t stopped thinking about her since Tuesday. We were meant to meet, I was meant to be her cardinal conduit. The notion of feeling vulnerable and taking the risk to communicate something to a complete stranger and be rewarded with the reception of the message in such a caring way reminded me how many layers underneath the surface of a first glance there are when you just take the time to say hello.