Monday, March 8, 2010


In which we see Ms. Bradstreet feel right at home (at the supermarket)

The Maria Chronicles, #43

Maria is surprised when, after an early Sunday dinner, she leaves her apartment to go food shopping and finds there's stil
l light outside: Spring is on the horizon. It's enough to take the edge off the drudgery of the task, though the accumulated salt on the side of her Prius reminds her both that winter is not over and that what New Englanders call "mud season" is still to come. Dusk is still lingering when she parks in the lot of the Food Emporium and grabs a cart near the entrance of the supermarket.

It's been at least ten days since she's been here. Maria remembers when she went at least once a week, groaning with the weight of a mini-van's weight worth of groceries (somehow Mark and the kids never seemed to be around to help her put stuff away). Now food shopping is like laun
dry: a relatively rare, relatively fast event. There you go: an advantage to being old and single. She might even get away with using the express lane on the way out, though she's taken to using the self-checkout machines that were installed recently. Funny how technology makes steady incursions into the interstices of everyday life, and yet some tasks, like buying napkins, never seem to change. Then again, some of her colleagues in the city order their groceries online and have them delivered. So maybe this little ritual will be gone soon, too. She won't miss it.

Maria ha
s made her way to the meat section, and is looking at 90% lean ground beef, when she hears a voice behind her: "Ms. Bradstreet!"

Maria turns around: it's Willie. Maria's stomach sinks. Bad enough to have her private life invaded this way. Even worse to consider that she's wearing faded jeans and an old Harvard sweatshirt. Maria feels like her dignity has been punctured.

But Willie doesn't seem to notice. "Hi!"

"Well hello, Willie," Maria says, trying to sound cheerful. "What brings you here?"

"Well, I'm helping my dad with the weekly food shopping. I always wondered if I would ever see you around town."

"Really? Where do you live, Willie?"

"Over on Hillside," she answers. "Only about a mile away from you."

Maria is as surprised that Willie lives nearby as she is that Willie knows where she lives. If it was anybody else, she'd find this creepy. Instead, it's just a bit deflating. Willie is beaming, but Maria sees th
at her student is just now realizing that she doesn't quite know what to say or ask. God bless her: She as the decency to realize that questions will not be welcome. And then Maria sees a light bulb go off. Willie leans back and peers down a row just beyond Maria's view. "Dad! I want you to meet Ms. Bradstreet."

Ugh. But Maria can't flee. She's just going to have to see this one through. She steals a look at her watch: 6:13. It's surely dark now.

A sur
prisingly short man -- Willie is almost as tall as he is -- emerges from the aisle wearing black jeans, a navy hoodie, and moccasins that look like they're actually slippers. Though his reddish hair is thinning, Maria sees that he's younger than she is. This is something she still hasn't made her peace with. Even though her children have finished college, the parents of her students, who typically had their kids later than she did, have been more or less her age for a long time now. But now a gap has begun to widen. One more thing to get depressed about.

"Dad, I want you to meet Ms. Bradstreet."

He ex
tends his hand, and the warmth of his smile gives Maria a shock of recognition: This is where Willie gets it. "Hello Ms. Bradstreet. Tommy Marzetti. Wilhelmina's dad. Real nice to meet ya."

"Pleasure to meet you. And a pleasure to work with your daughter."

"Willie's having the time of her life in your class. Always been a good student, always loved history, but this year has been something special. Many a good dinner table conve
rsation, let me tell you!"

"Well she's been a real spark plug for our class discussions."

"Yeah, well, like I said, she loves history. Just like her old man." He winks at his daughter and resumes addressing Maria. "I was a history major in college. I've taken Willie to Saratoga, Gettysburg, places like that. Over spring break I'm driving her and my wife down to Colonial Williamsburg. She and I went there once before Willie was born and loved it. I want her to have the same experience."

Willie is beaming at her father, and Maria is struck by the depth of their mutual affection. Though very bright, Willie has always struck Maria as socially immature. Most kids would be awkwar
d, if not alienated, in this kind of situation, yet she seems utterly unselfconscious. Maria is moved, in part because she suspects that this man has managed to do something very well to be the recipient of such unstinting love.

He appears to sense Maria's distraction. "Well look, we don't want to hold you up. But I'm very glad to have the chance to thank you for being such a special person. Willie really sees you as a role model. Wouldn't surprise me if she turned out to be a history teacher herself."

"God forbid," Maria says smiling. "Surely she can do better than that."

"Oh I dunno," he says, taking her seriously. "What could be better? Sure beats managing the service department at a Ford dealership. Anyway, have a great evening."

"Bye bye Ms. Bradstreet! See you tomorrow!"

The encounter lifts Maria's spirits, which remained buoyed for the rest of her trip down the supermarket aisles. Surprisingly for a Sunday night, she finds an open self-serve checkout, and is loading her groceries into the back of her car at 6:38 when she hears her cell phone ring inside her purse. Must be Felicia, she thinks. Her daughter always calls on Sunday night.

But it's not. Maria sees that it's the head of the history department. "Hi Jen," she says.

"Hey Maria. I'm having a glass of wine with Karl and Penny at The Black Rose, just around the corner from the school. We were wondering if you could join us. We were thinking about ordering a pot of fondue."

Maria is surprised by the offer. She and Jen have socialized, but she hasn't really gone out with any other faculty members. Pleased to be asked, she's also mindful that it's Sunday night and she now has a car full of groceries.

Jen senses her hesitation. "C'mon, Maria. Don't tell me you're not prepared for class tomorrow. "

Maria smiles. "I'll be there in twenty minutes," she says.

"That's my girl. We're in the back. I'll order you a Pinot Grigio."

Who woulda thunk it, Maria reflects, as she cues up the new Lyle Lovett CD as she waits at a traffic light. It's taken eight months, but for the first time she can imagine this as place as home.