Knowing Albert as she did, Elizabeth had to laugh when her dear friend Sofia told her about his trip to the local grocery store on Christmas Eve.
The three of them had been part of the same group of friends for decades. They had lived in the same neighbourhood, had raised their children together, had used the same park, the same library, the same community centre. And most of them had worked together at the university.
More recently, as one by one they had each retired and realized they no longer needed their large homes, they had begun to move away from the neighbourhood, into condos and smaller houses, and some into retirement homes. But with that kind of shared history, and living in a rather small city, it was easy and natural to keep in touch.
Several days after Christmas, Elizabeth navigated her small car through the snow-clad streets from her condo to Sofia’s townhouse for a visit. They only lived ten or so blocks away from each other, but with the slush and the snow and the barely-ploughed sidewalks, Elizabeth didn’t want to take any chances. She looked disdainfully at the heaped snowbanks up and down the street and wondered how on earth people were supposed to drive, never mind park. She was sure that in days gone by, the roads had been kept clearer.
Once inside Sofia’s house, however, she forgot about the snow. Inside, it smelled of coffee, of cakes and cookies and fresh bread.
Sofia greeted her friend with a warm, fragrant hug. They exchanged the usual pleasantries and looked for a few moments at Sofia’s ever-blossoming collection of orchids, violets and amaryllis.
When they returned to the kitchen, Sofia made them each an Italian coffee and placed a decorative plate full of sweet treats between them.
They exchanged stories about those they knew – past neighbours, new friends, family members – until something Elizabeth was saying reminded Sofia about Albert.
At 91, Albert was among the oldest of the group. He was one of the few of them who refused to move from his home. A widower, he lived alone in his large, ornate, 20-roomed house. His children as well as his grand-children had all grown up and though they implored him to sell the house and move into assisted living, he refused. He might be getting on, he would say, but he was certainly able to care for himself. Albert was a proud man.
He had recently – finally – consented to hire a nurse to come three times a week, though he claimed he had really only done so to relieve his long-time housekeeper from any additional responsibilities, besides the cooking and cleaning. The housekeeper usually bought groceries for him as well, but there were times he would head off on his own to buy things he was missing.
On Christmas Eve, Sofia explained, he had realized he was running out of milk. His housekeeper had gone home for the holidays and the nurse wouldn’t be by for a few days, not until after Christmas. He would be going to one of his children’s homes for Christmas Day but he would likely want milk at some point when everything was closed. So, he had haphazardly thrown a jacket on over his rotund frame, and headed out the door. He looked a little rough, but he was only buying milk, he reasoned. There was no need to shave and dress properly just to pop over to the corner store.
Out in the light of day, he realized that the jacket he had thrown on had some mud stains on it. He had last worn it during the final days of fall and it must have gotten dirty then. His sweater, too, looked a little worse for wear, with a catch at the bottom of it and some threads dangling from the cuffs. He pulled up his gloves to at least hide the threads and continued on his way.
The store was brightly lit, throwing its glare out across the two homeless men who had set up camp on the dim, grey street corner in front of the shop. Albert dropped some change into the box they had set up in front of them, then pushed through the shop’s narrow door, turning sideways to avoid bumping into the metal edges of the door frame and squinting slightly in the light. He walked over to the milk cabinet, selected a carton, and then proceeded up to the counter with it.
As he was standing in line, a woman approached him. He noticed fleetingly that she was holding an envelope. She was wrapped warmly in a red coat, hat and scarf. Wisps of long white hair stuck out from under her hat and she smiled benevolently at him with sparkling blue eyes. She reminded him for a moment of the Mrs. Claus of children’s Christmas picture books.
She cleared her throat as Albert tried in vain to figure out if he knew her or not.
“Hello,” she began. “I volunteer with a local organization and each Christmas, we take up a collection for those in need.” She proffered the envelope as she spoke. Albert could see that it contained a good deal of money and realized now that he did not, in fact, know her. “I would like to offer you this so that you can buy more than just a bit of milk for your Christmas.” Before he had a chance to say anything, she asked, “I hope you won’t be alone for Christmas?”
Albert saw himself as this lady must see him: unshaven, bedraggled and with a muddy jacket and ripped sweater. Not wishing to offend her, he delicately explained that he was only buying milk because he had run out. He assured her that he had food in his fridge, that he would not be alone for Christmas, and he thanked her for her concern.
He saw her look him up and down again; she wasn’t convinced that he didn’t need the money but she nodded kindly, put the envelope into her pocket and wished him a merry Christmas.
When he ran into Sofia outside on the street, she, too, paused as she took in his appearance. He remarked good-naturedly that he hadn’t thought it would matter what he looked like when he was just running out quickly to get milk. But he sheepishly told her about the kind lady and her charitable offer. Sofia had to laugh, and suggested that perhaps he might at least dress in a clean jacket when out in public.
Now, as she finished telling Elizabeth the story, she laughed again. “I can’t tell you how down on his luck he was looking!” she repeated.
Elizabeth smiled. Albert had never been one to flaunt his wealth, or to bother about dressy clothes, unless he had to for some of the university’s fancier dos. But he was usually neat and clean, and he was, after all, a proud man. She imagined he must have been rather taken aback at the offer.
The day after her visit with Sofia, Elizabeth and her husband, James, were in the cancer wing at the local hospital for James’ regular tests. As Elizabeth was sitting looking out the window waiting for James to return with the nurse, a man approached her and knelt down, holding out an envelope. He was with a group of people, all of whom were wearing pink shirts with “Team Allie” printed on them.
“Parking can get quite costly here, especially when you have to come for all the regular tests,” he said. “A few of us take up a collection each year to help people with the costs. We would like to offer you a portion of what we’ve collected.”
Elizabeth was touched by the man’s kindness and so stifled the laugh which threatened to escape as she thought of Albert’s story. How ironic that just a few days after she had heard his story, she too was being offered a donation.
“Thank you very much,” she managed, “it is quite expensive, you’re right. But we are able to afford it. Please, hold onto it for someone who really could use the help.”
As she watched Team Allie disappear down the hall, her smile returned. But she was no longer laughing about Albert.
It was funny that they had both been offered an envelope of money only several days apart. But it was also heartwarming to think there were so many kind and generous people left in the world. Now, instead of laughing, she was thinking about the spirit of giving and the kindness of strangers.