“Hey, I haven’t seen you in a while, sorry about that but….do you remember my wife?” a longtime and often weekly customer that had gone missing in action over a year ago. He and his wife would stop in, walk about the Italian red and French white department before chatting us up and stopping by to admire the cheeses in our cheese case. She always in slightly hippie attire, long flowing skirts, blowsy shirts in wild patterns, often not at all matching the rest of her outfit, lots of strings of beads around her neck…he seemingly a few years her junior, thick Latin accent where hers reminded me more of someone from the Midwest, maybe East Coast. He was much more subtle, quieter almost as if he allowed her to be the “show” as it were.
Always got the sense that they had great taste but the small import business they owned, (fabrics and tapestries from South America if I recall) didn’t afford them quite enough to attain the things they craved. They never said as much but there was something wistful in their comments about Amarone and white Burgundy, a longing for a time when those things were attainable for them. They were always smiling and friendly and never left without something to sip on. When I heard the words, “Do you remember my wife?” my mind was instantly transported back to the last few times they were in, where I could tell she had lost weight and where her oft messy brown hair had been there were now scarves in decorative and splashy colors. I had assumed she might be ill but never dared ask….the answer to that unasked question and to where they had been was to be answered with, “She passed away.”
We spent about twenty minutes at the front counter, him telling me all that they had been through, the chemo, the having to move when she became too weak to climb the stairs, the hours in the hospitals, the late night trips to the restroom….the falls when her tired legs just couldn’t hold her up anymore, more ambulances, more beating up of her tired body, more hospitals. I was almost in tears the whole time but trying my best to just listen to him. Let him tell the tale that I’m sure he has been for the past couple months, him stopping every so often to assure me that she was in fact very lucky and suffered little pain. I could feel my chest filling the way it does when you are sucking in too much air and trying to stuff back emotion, as this man I had known all those years as the silent partner to the dripping with color and commentary lady, shared his story, their journey, the lady of fine scarves’ end. “She didn’t have to have hospice care and there was not much pain….or if there was she had learned to cope so well that we were unaware of it” my heart splitting wide open, knowing that each word of his tale brought us that much closer to the end. Pretty sure he could tell, found him starting to smile more, an act of selflessness, another act of selflessness I should say, making a point to lean in a little and rest his hand upon my shoulder. “It was hard, really hard but we had a good five years before the cancer spread. We traveled, laughed and did the best we could. One night she was having trouble breathing again, the cancer had spread to her lungs, she got into bed, closed her eyes and then…she was gone. It was peaceful and how she wanted it to be.”
My eyes were filling with tears but I didn’t even get the chance to cry or barely choke out an, “I’m so sorry” before he launched into the after. The dismantling of a shared life, home, business and the starting over on his own. My sadness replaced with admiration as waved off my sympathy and discussed what was next for him. “So” he said after a deep breath and a slap of his hands, “The reason I’m here, I need some Champagne” I stood there blinking, both in an attempt to dry out the tears that had puddled in the corners of my eyes and because I don’t think once, in all the years they shopped at The Wine Country, that I can remember helping them pick a bottle of Champagne. “When I first came to this country, 30 years ago” his face animated, playful and brimming with excitement, “I fell in love with hockey, the Los Angeles Kings” his voice getting louder and smile even broader. “My team is having one hell of a season and tonight might just wrap it up. It’s unbelievable. I almost don’t know how to feel. I keep asking, “Is this even real?!” but they keep winning. Un-be-lieve-able. So I figured this occasion called for some Champagne”. I was reeling a bit but took the opportunity to switch from heartbreak to Champagne like a starving woman being tossed a Ritz cracker. Gave him a wide sweeping wave and a “follow me” before walking him to our sparkling wine department.
I began showing him things like J. Laurens, our best-selling and honestly, kickass little sparkler from Limoux. The Allimant-Laugner Brut Rose from Alsace. Went over flavor profiles and discussed what the wines were made from. He stood there quiet once again, before saying, “Did I say sparkling wine? I meant Champagne” I had been shopping for the couple that longed for the more expensive but bought the pleasant little sippers, not for this man that I was actually kind of meeting for the first time. “I’m sorry” I said, “I just wasn’t sure:” a big grin spread across his face, hand once again on my shoulder, he knew. Walked around to the Champagne side of our racks and much as he had done mere minutes before, found my way out of the sadness, found my voice as I pointed at, picked up and waxed rhapsodic about my little grower Champagnes.
This time it was me, the one wearing the big grin and chattering faster than he could even keep up. His head was whirling as I rested my fingers upon this bottle and that, pausing to talk about the family that made it, the tiny production, the richness and length. I threw nearly ten wines at him, admittedly keeping things in a price bracket that while miles….and maybe years, away from what he and his wife would spend, were in line with a man starting his life all over again while living in the warehouse that houses decades worth of accumulated fabrics and brightly colored scarves. He took it all in, grabbed the most expensive bottle I recommended, stood in front of me wearing a lightness that wasn’t there when he first walked in and said, “What the hell. They’ve earned it right?” to which I responded….
“So have you”
Nearly 11:00 PM on a Thursday night and all I can think about is that couple. Their years of patronage, silent yearning for wines just out of their “responsible” price range. Her vibrant scarves and personality, his humbleness and now more vocal nature. All that they went through and his stopping by to share it all and celebrate for the first time in five years. Inspiring.
Cracked open an, anything-but-Thursday-night bottle of Champagne, made myself a batch of fries for dinner and am sitting here sipping, teeth breaking crispy potato flesh…my own loud scarves, thinking of them and feeling grateful.
Cheers to you Fine Lady of Scarves