Last Saturday I celebrated a birthday that officially gave me “Woman of a Certain Age” status.
Also known as “just a number,” the occasion meant having both my daughters, along with BFF and her three girls, on hand in Boston for a well-designed weekend of fun.
Truth is, I am loved, lucky, and grateful.
Logistics aligned with the stars: Number One’s flight from California was on time and the weather fully cooperated. Dave, the front-desk supervisor at the Faneuil Hall hotel BFF scored, was so charmed by my entourage that he upgraded us to side-by-side suite-like rooms, one with a view of the Boston skyline. Dave also gave us a late checkout on Sunday, which made me forget that the pandemic lowered my expectations of what constitutes acceptable customer service.
We shot darts in the Seaport at a fancy adult playroom. We had frozen drinks at a trendy rooftop hot spot, ate dinner in the North End, and had gourmet sushi for brunch. My youngest and I ended the weekend with a surprise trip to Fenway Park. The Red Sox lost miserably to the playoff-bound Tampa Bay Rays, but that didn’t keep me from singing “Sweet Caroline” way too loud and most definitely off-tune.
Readers may remember that I had a banner weekend just prior to this one when I had company from Cincinnati. Once again, I am lucky, loved, and grateful.
But I’m not writing to detail whirlwind weekend escapades or to verbally rehash Instagram-worthy snapshots of my 36 hours in Beantown. Instead, I’m compelled to highlight the homeless woman I met on a bench in Norman B. Leventhal Park. Close to the water, this city-center park has a mature garden trellis and a sculptural water fountain people walk through on stifling days. I’d never been there.
Being the first one up and out on Sunday, I grabbed a coffee at the little shop downstairs and hit the quiet streets in my shell coral/peach parfait HOKA sneakers (no, I did not make up that color combination name.) Aside from a guy sweeping the street I didn’t see anyone for more than an hour.
Until I sat down in the park.
Sitting across from me on a bench dedicated to Norman himself I met a woman who was also in the certain age club. Her name was Sheila and on her lap slept a chocolate Lab mix puppy she had dubbed Elpis, after the ancient Greek spirit of hope, I was told.
Shelia gave me a detailed and colorful history of Elpis, and how along with some element of hardship she remained behind in Pandora’s box, which explained why ancient Greeks didn’t believe hope stood alone. Elpis was forever connected to suffering. It came off like Buddhism and almost every other organized, but not fanatical, branch of religion.
Sheila talked for half an hour in the most eloquent manner. If I closed my eyes, I could have been in a university lecture hall or on a museum tour. Because I’m nosy and have questionable filters, I wanted to ask how she came to be sleeping on the streets with an adorable puppy and a suitcase with one broken wheel. But mostly I wanted to keep this woman in my mind’s eye as a tenured professor speaking from a virtual podium, or in the role of a well-versed docent.
But Sheila was neither. She was a grandmother who couldn’t remember the last time she saw her family, or much else about her life that she seemed willing to offer without being interrogated. There was no animosity in her voice, just resignation.
Then, she told me two parking attendants in the garage next to the park visit often to bring her food. One of them washed all of her belongings and might take the puppy to live with him and his family. Sheila wasn’t sure she wanted that, thinking the dog could protect her if necessary. But she did say a family would be good for Elpis.
With my phone silently blowing up, I became eager to return to my own family-like unit and finish the birthday weekend. But not before I got the name and number of the management company operating the garage next to Norman B. Leventhal Park. It was my intent to call Monday morning, praise the two employees, and somehow reach the one hoping to adopt Elpis.
The unstated grace of this still nameless and faceless person is one of the best birthday gifts I could imagine. Being reminded that it doesn’t take much to help someone else, especially when my own life feels so rich and full, may sound cliche but I’m all in. It’s the ultimate in paying gratitude forward.
Driving home after the Red Sox game, I replayed each moment of the weekend in slow motion, freezing on the part where I met Sheila. Not only did I feel lucky, loved, and grateful, but also hopeful.
After all, what’s one more word when a woman like me reaches a certain age?
Natalie Ladd is an award-winning columnist, freelance writer, and Portland restaurant veteran. She loves Boston sports, California cabernets, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. Reach her at [email protected].