Flowers and earflaps

I WAS driving home late one afternoon when I saw her on the corner up ahead, in each hand a bunch of flowers offered for sale, and at her side a little shop, a basketful of many kinds of flowers. This was a good place and a good time to sell flowers. Cars had to stop periodically at the light there, and people's mood, the workday over, was receptive. Thanks to the weather, still warm, car windows were rolled down, almost inviting business. I saw many bunches of flowers, red, yellow, white, blue, and all neatly secured with rubber bands, pass from the hand of the flower lady through the open windows of the cars. And there was a goodly flow of that green stuff, too. Money, it's called.

Unfortunately the stoplight, as if in happy imitation, turned green as I approached the corner, so I had to drive past the lady. But a couple of blocks later I found a parking place, parked, and headed back on foot. It wasn't just to buy flowers that I retraced myself like this. It was to see the lady, to get a better look at her. She reminded me of someone, and I wondered if by some miracle she could be one and the same.

I was thinking of a lady named Mrs. Jacobs whom I had known when I was only a boy. She was a short lady of delicate frame, with large, dim-blue eyes set in shadowy hollows, a bumpy nose, and black hair streaked with gray. She almost always, whatever the weather, wore a puddle-gray coat and a puddle-gray hat whose only ornament was a simple, sparse feather pinned to it.

Widowed in mid life, she made a meager living as a seamstress, going from door to door in our Jewish neighborhood and asking the housewives who would like an old Sabbath dress mended, or a new one made; who would like to surprise a husband with his prayer shawl restored to all its threads; who would like help, improvement, cheer. Around her neck was always draped a tape measure, perhaps to show that she was as ready to work in someone else's home as in her own. Sometimes in her diligence she looked almost like a child, like a little girl with a jump rope around her neck, seeking someone to play with.

She was always very kind to me. She noticed, for example, how cold my ears got in winter, turning a frosty white and almost tinkling, like little circular icicles. Sometimes I would walk about with my hands cupped over them, like someone trying to shut out a piercing noise. For only a dollar, Mrs. Jacobs made me a gray felt cap with earflaps, and my ears were never cold again.

When times were especially hard for her, my mother, even though she had no work for her, would give her something. A glass of milk. Some matzo crackers. A bagel. Not charity, but just the help that pride didn't ask for.

Once, I found her sitting on the curb, looking woebegone.

``Are you all right, Mrs. Jacobs?'' I asked.

She smiled. ``Yes, darling, I'm fine. Just a little tired today, that's all.''

``Would you like some of my candy bar?''

``No, dear, thank you. I have enough to eat.''

I must have looked as if I didn't quite believe her.

What she did next, I never forgot. She stood, straightened the cap she'd sewn for me, and then made the most expressive gesture. She clenched her hand into a fist tight as a thimble, raised it high over her head, and gave it a terrific shake, as if to say, ``Don't worry about me. I'll see this through. I'm a fighter!''

A short time after that she left our neighborhood, and none of the grownups knew what had become of her. Only I, a child, had news, and it came in the form of a dream. A fairy tale of a dream.

I dreamed I saw Mrs. Jacobs sitting on a throne in a misty green forest. Her eyes were large, round, and bright blue, and all the shadows around them were gone. Gone, too, the bumps in her nose, the gray in her hair. Her face was smooth and calm and wise. Her once puddle-gray coat shone like a sea at dawn, and where her old hat had been, a sparkling crown sat. In one hand she held her former tape measure, now a majestic staff. It was as if, all along, she had been a great princess under some dreadful enchantment, and now she was freed, transformed to a shining lady again.

I could see as I approached the flower lady on her corner that she was not Mrs. Jacobs. My heart fell a little, but then I remembered the hopefulness of my fairy tale. The flower lady was taller, broader, and -- appropriately -- rosier than Mrs. Jacobs. The resemblance began and ended in the goodness of the face, the spirit of the gestures, the instinctive sympathy that flowed out from people who had suffered but never lost faith in themselves or in others.

``I saw you drive by just a few minutes ago, young man,'' she greeted me. ``And now you've come back to buy my flowers? Well, God love you!''

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