My New Friend Shirley
We find hope where we least expect it. It sounds like a Hallmark statement, but it is true.
Few in my intimate circle know what I have endured since losing my girlfriend, Iola Sue Gwizdowski. She left us the day before Thanksgiving. Most do not know the depth of the tragedy. That is okay for now. It is of a nature that sharing has been terribly difficult – some things are just hard to externalize. I find myself feeling one of two ways. First, there are so few possibly understand the grief – I went through something not many folks do. That is a good thing, but I find myself lonely with it. It’s so hard to share, and harder to see someone look me in the eye and say “I know what you’re going through.”
Secondly, I feel like I inflict pain on others, just by sharing the tragic story. That is not true I know. I see them try to fathom what I feel, and I see and hear that look of pain on their face. While I know they just want to be there for me, I also know that the story leaves folks worried about me. I don’t want people worrying. I don’t want people trying to feel what I feel. No one should have to.
When I returned to my busy working life in San Francisco, I found it almost shocking that I was able to slip right back into my life. For most, it was as if nothing had happened to me. Most knew I lost someone. They don’t know how. They don’t know why. I found myself feeling like myself again in moments, and for whatever reason, it left me feeling confused that I could do that. It leaves you feeling like a stone-face. The ultimate poker face – while underneath it all exists a great storm well hidden by the diverting social skills we’ve all mastered by now.
Grief is one of the most encapsulating and confusing emotions I have ever felt and faced. It ebbs and flows in ways far from what you anticipate. It leaves you completely at moments. Yet it comes surging back at other times when you least expect it.
Unsettled has been my favorite word.
Years ago I bought a 1945 typewriter. An Underwood – at one time they were the largest manual typewriter producer in the world. I bought it because of the beautiful sound it made as you pressed hard with each keystroke. It is fully manual. No power supply required. It is an amazing machine built to last. I find myself marveling at all the delicate parts and pieces. So many years later it still works perfectly.
The ribbon was running out of ink. It became an epic struggle to find a replacement. I’ve had an important project that I can only complete on my typewriter. A computer simply doesn’t do it the proper justice. Much like a canvas to a painter it is the wrong tool for this intimate work ahead of me.
I ended up at a small office supply store off of Market Street in San Francisco. Patrick’s is a small and niche like place. Unable to find what I was looking for, an employee directed me to their other location just a few blocks away from my office. Go there and ask for Shirley the salesman said. She is their resident typewriter expert.
Patrick’s is where you’d to find unique things that you can’t find anywhere else. It is not Office Max. It is a small shop, and the service is somewhat old school.
Shirley fit that mold perfectly. 84 years young, it was literally like meeting the West Coast version of my Grandma Davis. They even looked similar (she and I will take a photo someday soon).
Shirley loved the fact I was looking for such a special part – it was pretty rare a guy so young showed up looking for such an old school part. She reveled at the challenge and loved my connection to a machine that is no longer cherished by the masses. A technology long since passed up.
What she did not know, is why I suddenly wanted this replacement part.
“I have a secret,” Shirley sweetly stated.
“My boss doesn’t know that they have been paying me to have fun for 35 years. Helping the customer find anything the customer wants, no matter how hard it is to find, is nothing but fun for me.”
Shirley then shared a fitting story with me. She did not realize how close it hit home for me.
How could she have known?
There was an elderly woman in her store looking for a very special and hard to find pen. Years ago her husband had bought her this special pen. It had since vanished. He had recently passed away. She wanted to write him one last letter to place in his casket. Words to comfort him forever. She wanted so badly to use that pen, but she could not find it anywhere. Enter Shirley and her tireless quest to please the customer.
She called vendor after vendor, sending someone deep into their basement of supplies. Sure enough, they found that needle in a pile of needles. She not only got her that exact pen, but she also got it to her in time to write that immortal letter.
I suddenly felt safe to share my story. I want to write the eulogy I shared at Iola’s memorial service. A computer is not the appropriate medium for me. I have to write it on special paper with this special typewriter. A typewriter gives you the true feeling of creation. Each word on the page is forever, and it instantly becomes a piece of art that didn’t exist in the world previously.
I told Shirley that Iola had passed away. I told her how Iola had passed, and how I was the one that found her that way. I told her why I wanted that ribbon.
She was shocked, but I could tell she had lived all of her 84 years. I knew she’d understand the complexity of life. She did with a softness that gave me a much-needed moment of peace.
Shirley had lost her husband nearly 20 years ago. She put her hand on her heart. He was with her every day. She assured me Iola was with me. She said Iola wants me to be happy. Iola wants me to move on in my life. No one had said that to me before. Not the way she did.
“My husband taught me how to live,” She said.
“My husband taught me how to die.”
Those words have not left me since.
Here I was on a short lunch hour from my chaotic job, and I found this gem.
I found a place where I could open up, her sharing made it safe for me to share.
Her soothing words enveloped my heart with a peace I had not yet found.
For the first time in all of this, I saw that someday I’d be ready to hold onto the good. I saw the blessing of the short time we did have. I felt for the first time that soon, it will be okay to move on with my own happiness. I am still here. I am still alive.
As of writing this story, I’m a 15 dollar check away from this ribbon. She found a collector down on the peninsula who will be sending me a new reel of fresh black ink.
Each day after I get my sandwich, I go and see Shirley. She told me that I had better keep on visiting her. I honestly cannot see myself stopping. She is often the best part of my day.
Each day she reminds me that Iola is with me, forever part of my heart.
Had Shirley not shared that very sad story, and the words about the love of her life. I don’t know that I could have opened up to her. I did, and I’m so glad for it.
I have a new piece of hope each day. I had no idea that is where I would find it.
Never forget that life gives you chances. You must open. If you do, you will not miss them.
I’ve promised Shirley I’d share this story I wrote about her. I’m going to write it on the Underwood.
With my new ribbon.