I swear on my honor as a journalist and as a lover of fellow humans, this entire story is true. Every detail is as Gladis (Gladdis? Gladys?) told me, so it, at the very least, is as true as her memory allows it to be. This encounter took place at around 2:50 p.m., April 21, 2017, on the corner of Fess and 8th.
When Gladis S—-, 56, of New York pulled up alongside me, I knew a grand total of two things about her.
The first was that she was driving a shiny black rental car. The window rolled down, I caught a whiff of new car smell before she said a word.
The second was her destination: the Runcible Spoon, a local café.
She was in need of directions and saw me walking down the street, having just left work. I must have a friendly face, as she not only chose to seek said directions from me, but the next thing she did was tell me about her son, James, an engineering student at Purdue.
He was living here for the summer, she said, and they were looking at houses. She loves old houses. Especially that brick one, she pointed behind me. I was standing in the gutter, leaves and wilted brown flower petals crunching as I shuffled my weight.
She pulled out her phone (the background was a grinning golden retriever) and swiped through photos she’d taken of the house. A bedroom. A neatly organized closet. A large, clean kitchen. A pristine bathroom. A desk. A bedside table with a copy of “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” It was being rented by a senior, she said, majoring in chemistry. She couldn’t remember what his girlfriend did, but he was very cute and very polite.
The next photo was of him, smiling, if a bit uncertainly, on the porch of the house. It was next to a park, Gladis said. She showed me the beautiful green yard, surrounded by trees. A table the boy had built. She said it showed he cared, but I wasn’t entirely sure what she meant.
Gladis went on to say that she’d been in a depression as of late, with both her sons off to college. The other was at William & Mary. They were both Eagle Scouts, and fraternal twins. Complete opposites, she said, like “yin and yang.”
As she described them, her voice got slightly choked up. I’ll be honest, I stepped slightly back. I didn’t know this woman, didn’t know what to say if she started crying.
She luckily didn’t notice, or at least didn’t say anything. And she struck me, in our conversation, as the kind of person who would have. She spoke her mind, sometimes in exaggerated grumbles under her breath.
As she spoke –and it was mostly she who spoke– she worried the collar of her grey sweater. Around her thin neck was a string of carved beads, reds and yellows and pinks. Her hair was blonde and straw-like, ending just above her shoulders with the ends slightly bobbed. Her eyes were bluish-gray, with rings of darker gray around the pupils. She wore a pair of white-rimmed sunglasses atop her head, which she pulled down over her eyes about halfway through our conversation.
I have ADD, Gladis said, apologizing several times for sharing so much, though showing no indication of stopping. I told her not to worry, it was fine.
She asked about my necklace, a little carved castle sitting on an orb of blue glass. As I answered, she had already switched topics, reaching over to the passenger’s seat for a folder. She pushed out of the way a red cooler with a green Nature Valley granola bar in the mesh pocket, tossed aside a colorful tote bag bearing the name of a regional grocery chain I didn’t recognize.
In the folder was a thick packet of papers –road maps, reservation confirmation from hotels, white sheets full of looping scribbles. She’d stayed in three hotels during her week here, she said: the Grant Street Inn, the Hyatt downtown and the Biddle. Gladis said she far preferred the Biddle. I agreed, it was very nice.
She loved campus, had filled her phone with pictures and texted them all to her son. Said she wished she’d known about it at the time the boys were deciding on colleges.
They loved nature, Gladis said. She and her husband, and the boys, too. They were staying in Nashville, or had been. I assumed she meant Little Nashville, the semi-colloquial name of Brown County, Indiana, just a few miles down the road. Then she continued that her son had arrived in Bloomington by bus a few days before she had and was nervous to be on his own. It’s just four hours away, she assured him –and I realized she meant Nashville, Tennessee.
She seemed more nervous than him, despite how she’d described the kid.
She’d sent her boys on trips before, and that hadn’t been a problem. But four years at college and the inevitable setting out on their own –that was harder. She asked if I had traveled and I replied yes, showing her the shirt I was wearing: from my two-month stay in Spain through IU’s Honor Program in a Foreign Language.
Oh, she said, that reminded her of her step-daughter, who did a similar program in Russia. In Siberia. The girl had been there for just a little while when she’d needed emergency surgery –she has Crohn’s disease, and luckily had been taken to the hospital by someone from the hostel she was staying in.
The doctors had been fine, she’d said (an Indian or Chinese doctor had done the surgery. I wasn’t entirely sure why she told me that.), but the nurses were something else. They’d come into her room and smoke, and the step-daughter was justifiably upset, though unable to do anything as she was full of painkillers and meds. I asked if she was alright now, and Gladis said yes, after another surgery in New York, she was fine.
If it’d been her daughter, Gladis told me, she surely would have had a breakdown. I sensed that fear of something happening while she couldn’t be there was a large part of the reason she was talking to me now –she wanted someone to understand that she was worried for her boys, wanted them to go out in the world but at the same time wanting to keep them close.
She hadn’t believed in empty nest syndrome, but, Gladis assured me, it’s real.
Gladis was worried about James, worried because last summer, he’d been awfully mean to her. Told her she didn’t pour the water right, didn’t wash the dishes right. “I didn’t walk the dog right!” she said, laughing in amazement, but she said she’d tried to be sensible. She had worked as a teacher, was used to how children behaved. This was how they acted, right? Before college, you want to break away –but to do that, you have to do the breaking part (she put her hands together and pretended to snap them, for emphasis).
But then, she continued, then she took him out to dinner a few months later. He complained about the price, and she said it didn’t matter. “You’re worth it,” Gladis assured him (it was an Italian restaurant, she told me, it wasn’t that expensive.) She was astonished when he replied that he’d have to pay for the food in the end. He planned to pay Mom and Dad back after college.
The same kid who’d yelled at her in the summer, now saying something like that. Gladis was shocked.
She’d been worried, you see, because of her husband’s upbringing. His mother had had Asperger’s (you know what that is, right?, she asked me. I nodded.) and had been stiff, not affectionate. Never said she was proud of him. Sent him away to Cornell, didn’t deliver him. Just put him on a bus on a rainy day. That was it.
Gladis was worried that this had transferred to their boys as well, that they had done the same while raising the twins (I doubted that, but didn’t say it.). She was afraid that the boys weren’t open enough, were afraid to share their feelings. But that bit of gratitude, that oath to repay his parents –it sent Gladis reflecting.
My grandparents came from Germany and Sweden, she said, with trunks, no money. They didn’t go to college. They lived in the Bronx back when it was countryside, with chickens and cows –more cows than people, you understand.
Her mother had wanted to be an athletic trainer, understood the importance of education. She hadn’t really had the chance to go to college, so she went to secretarial school, like everyone did in those days.
Gladis said that, growing up, she wasn’t as grateful to her parents as she should have been. They’re both dead now, though, she said. She leaned out her car window and shouted to the sky, “Thank you!” and slumped back into her seat, laughing.
She went to college in Vermont, she said, and I asked where. Middlebury, she said. I have a cousin who went to Middlebury, I replied.
Gladis looked delighted. She asked me if I’d heard in the news recently about the speaker there –a man, some called him a racist, though she wasn’t sure, had given a speech and the students, as a protest, went into the auditorium and turned their backs as he spoke.
Now I’m liberal, Gladis said, more conservative than some of my friends, but still liberal. I believe everyone should have free speech. And the fact these students protested in such a way disturbed her. It offended her. Especially so, I could tell, since it had been her alma mater.
I told her we had quite a few protests here, too, as it’s such a liberal campus. She replied that she’d seen one earlier in the week.
That brought us to the inevitability of conversations these days: Trump. She asked me if I was scared. I debated my reply for a moment, and decided to be honest: I’m tired of being scared, I said. I don’t want to live my life being nervous.
She nodded, seeming to agree. She was worried about war, you see, worried that he’d press the button to nuke the planet.
If all the children of the world could just get to know each other, she said, there’d be no war. Kids don’t care –they just play. Kids don’t know if you’re yellow or purple or pink or gay or Chinese, and they don’t care, Gladis said. They just play.
She asked me what I thought of Mike Pence, and I couldn’t help but laugh. Choosing my words carefully, I said residents of Indiana don’t especially like Pence (our former Governor). I left it at that.
Gladis continued that, driving down from Indianapolis she’d seen many billboards about abortion –and if you’ve driven anywhere in Indiana, you probably know the ones she means. With the big beating hearts and the pictures of wide-eyed babies, the block letters proclaiming abortion as a sin. The scripture verses proclaiming all lives to be sacred.
She hadn’t realized that Indiana was so conservative. I tried not to laugh again, explaining there were two pockets of blue in the otherwise red state: one around Indianapolis and another where we were standing.
Gladis explained that she was a Protestant and knew that she would never have an abortion. I was wondering where she was going with this as she continued: she wanted to be married by her 40s, have kids. She could never have an abortion, she repeated, unless there were overarching medical reasons (like a choice between my life and the baby’s) but it wasn’t her place to chastise anyone who made that decision. Ultimately, Gladis said, it’s God’s place to judge.
I nodded amicably.
She changed the subject to her son, James, again. Telling me about his time on the soccer team. He’d been great, played for years as the goal keeper. Until one year, he approached his father and said he didn’t want to play anymore. His dad said fine, they’ll try another team. But James was serious; he went to his coach and said he wouldn’t try out for that season (the coach nearly had a heart attack, Gladis said, nearly died right there. Never in 30 years had that happened, had a kid just up and quit like that.). But Gladis had listened to what James was saying –what he was really saying.
He was the fastest kid on the team, she said he’d said (without actually saying it, though, this was her motherly intuition), and they never let him leave the goalie’s box. They’d never let him play forward. So he wanted to quit.
His mother allowed it and, the same year, he joined the track team. Came third in state (her exact words were “or something like that,” but she was practically glowing with pride, there was no ‘or something’ about it.).
Gladis pulled up her phone, read me the last text she’d sent him. She was worried because he hadn’t replied, wanted to know what I thought. The message said she loved the campus and agreed that yes, he should probably get a car for around town. She said she enjoyed visiting him, that it was always a treat to see him.
Gladis looked up at me with worry in her eyes and I gave what I hoped was a reassuring smile. I’d been on the receiving end of quite a few of those texts, I assured her, and I always appreciate them. Even if he doesn’t say it, I’m sure he appreciates them, too.
She told me to hug my parents. I said I would.
Gladis turned her car back on (she’d turned it on and off twice while we stood there) and said she should probably go eat. She offered to buy me lunch but I politely declined.
I wished her safe travels, and she thanked me for listening.
Then, 45 minutes after she’d pulled up, Gladis S—- drove away, and one of the most surreal episodes of my life came to a close. I hope she found the Runcible Spoon, and I hope James thanked her.
In a funny little way, I hope I see her again, but I doubt I will. I’m left wondering what else I would have heard had I said yes to lunch.
Though I’m not sure there’s much left she didn’t tell me.
It’s good to keep an open ear, you never know what you’ll learn.