Sometimes, the history that captivates us most isn’t the one that has shaped who we are but instead is the one that has shaped others.
I didn’t grow up in the town where I now live, and no significant life events have occurred here (yet). Despite that, I can’t shake the nostalgia that often hits me at the oddest times.
Take, for example, my daily mail run during the work week.
My office is located two blocks from Patterson’s Pharmacy, where a mailbox sits just outside of the picture windows.
Almost every day, when I am dropping off the office mail, I glance in at the patrons sitting at the old-fashion soda fountain.
For the most part, these individuals are, at a minimum, a couple of decades older than I am. Most are at least 30 years older.
Sometimes they wave at me, but often they don’t because they are too engrossed in conversation. Despite their general camaraderie, there is always at least one person who hides behind the daily newspaper, with his head stuck in so far that I’m not sure he’s reading or using the paper as a shelter from the outside world.
I’ve never noticed what or whether people are eating or drinking, but my guess is they are generally sipping cups of coffee rather than the homemade milkshakes, malts and sodas that interest the younger generation. These are the treats that my children and friends enjoy despite, or maybe because of, the old-fashion counter, historic photos and the general slow pace of the place.
Last Friday, my daughter and her friend asked me to take them to Patterson’s. We took our seats on the soda fountain stools, even though no one was behind counter.
The old woman next to me in the knitted cap didn’t say anything. The two elderly gentleman on the stools at the end of the counter were quiet for about five minutes until I asked the girls if they were willing to wait or wanted to go elsewhere.
“She’s at the bank to get some cash,” the one man told me. “She’ll be back soon.”
No one said who “she” was. Everyone knew it was Ginny, whom I also see daily and has worked at Patterson’s since I moved to town.
No one seemed concern about Ginny’s absence. That’s the slow pace of business at a place like Patterson’s.
No one is worried about following the rules of corporate America in which money is often more important than people. Patterson’s is a local business in a small town. It caters to older people as well as 13 year-old girls who want a genuine root beer float and are more than willing to spend time chatting with each other at a old-fashion soda fountain rather than demand that their drinks are available immediately
At Patterson’s, people are important.
I know this because they are one of very few pharmacies that provide services to the people whom Catholic Charities, where I work, helps. These are people who often can’t even afford the $1.00 co-pay needed for a prescription. But Patterson’s works with us to ensure that people who need help get help.
And sometimes that help doesn’t come in a bottle but instead comes in the form of a safe place.
Last Friday, as my daughter, her friend and I waited for Ginny, the old woman in the knit cap on the stool next to me finally began talking.
“How old are your girls?” she asked me.
“Thirteen,” I said.
“Thirteen? They are awful big for 13!”
I looked at my daughter and her friend. Neither was wearing makeup and both were wearing t-shirts and Converse tennis shoes. To me, they looked exactly 13.
“In my day, kids were a lot smaller,” she said.
“When was that?” I asked.
“Back in the 1950’s,” she said, “I had kids in the 1950’s when Martinsburg was still Martinsburg.”
“Hmmm,” I responded. Ginny was back, and I ordered the root beer floats.
“I grew up here,” the woman in the knit cap said, “but you wouldn’t know it. I don’t know anyone here now. I don’t even know what happened to the bars. Back in my day, there were bars here but there wasn’t the traffic we have today. There’s too much traffic now.”
“Hmmm,” I said as Ginny filled glasses with root beer and added a scoops of ice cream.
“What is that?” the woman asked looking at a glass with a bit of suspicion.
“A root beer float,” I answered.
“I can’t drink that anymore,” the woman said. “It does something to my stomach.”
“Hmmm,” I said.
“I don’t like this town anymore,” the woman in the knit cap said. “It’s full of people I don’t know doing things they shouldn’t do.”
She shrugged then looked at my daughter and her friend.
“What are they drinking?” she asked.
“Root beer floats,” I answered.
“I can’t drink those anymore,” the woman said again. “It does something to my stomach.”
And so are conversation went. She asked me the same questions and when I answered, she gave me the same responses and the same complaints.
When the root beer floats were gone and the girls were ready to go, the woman said goodbye then struck up a conversation with Ginny behind the counter.
“How are you feeling today, Shirley?” Ginny asked.
“Not good,” said Shirley. “I don’t know anyone in this town anymore.”
“But they know you,” I thought as my daughter and her friend smiled at her and said goodbye as we walked out the door.
“Sometimes, the history that captivates us most isn’t the one that has shaped who we are,” I thought. “Instead is the one that has shaped and is shaping others. And sometimes there is noting more magical than watching it shape very different generations at the same time.”