A Chance Encounter

I had had a somewhat disappointing day on a business trip to Chicago. The good news was that I was done sooner than expected and just able to catch an earlier flight. I was going to be in a middle seat due to the last minute change, but getting home earlier was well worth it. I boarded the plane in a hurry, found my row and sat down. The row was empty, but I was sure that wouldn’t last. Within minutes a nice couple came down the idle and immediately said, “Are you sure you’re in the right row?”

“I think so,” I said without confidence and pulled my ticket out of my pocket. “Nope, you’re right, sorry about that,” I said as I quickly got up and moved my stuff to the row ahead. I travel a lot for work and usually don’t make that kind of mistake. I must be quite distracted, I thought to myself.

I settled down into my new center seat next to a very small, very old, and elegantly dressed lady in the window seat. I had barely gotten my briefcase under the seat in front of me when she turned, looked me up and down and said, in perfect English but a sophisticated Old World French accent that belonged to a distant decade, “I am glad you are big in height and not wide. I hate it when a big fat man sits next to me on a plane.” I am 6’4″ so that was a reasonable observation, but she said it with so much charm and good humor, smiling up at me like she was very proud of her joke, that I had to smile.

“Yes, I’m pretty tall,” I said. “The one disadvantage of that is airplane travel.” She smiled back and that was the end of the conversation. I took a closer look at her. Her face was spritely and alive with intelligence, and although clearly very old, she looked good, as if she had shed as many years as came her way. She was dressed quite elegantly in a long coat with an intricate French Country fabric design. She had on a huge stone ring that was at least double the width of her tiny, deeply wrinkled fingers. She wore surprisingly up-to-date glasses and her hair was just so. It was normal, like she had done it herself, not the thin, frosted, hair-sprayed helmet typical of an old lady that spends too much time at the hairdressers.

I made a business call or two. I checked my email on my phone, played some words against unknown partners on my Wordly app, and suddenly noticed that although everyone was on-board and seated, we hadn’t moved in a little too long.

Then the speakers blared. “This is your captain, the IEM on-board has just decided to stop working. The mechanics are here looking at it, and hopefully we can get it back up and running soon. We’ll give you an update when we have more detail.”

I’ve flown enough to immediately realize that this means hours. Mechanical stuff is never quick. They won’t let us off the plane, because when it is fixed, they’ll want to leave right away. We were just going to have to sit here for hours. I was already grumpy. The row I was in didn’t have the extra leg-room of United’s Economy Plus. We had to keep our seat backs upright which was beginning to cramp my lower back, and there was very little air coming out of the vents, so despite being December in Chicago outside, it was getting hot. Ugg, I thought, and got out my iPad to watch a show.

About an hour later a flight attendant made an announcement. “We apologize for the inconvenience and appreciate your patience, and we’ll be underway as soon as we can,” along with a bunch of other equally useless information. The little old lady suddenly turned to me, her face again lit up with a crafty smile and said, in her delightful French accent, “What do zay mean zay appreciate our patience? What choice do we have?” and chuckled to herself, shaking her head.

“Yes, I know. They always say stuff like that,” I replied. As charming as this old lady was, I’m almost never in the mood to talk to people on planes. I’d already had a busy, hard day. I’d had to manage customers, be charming and conversational myself all day, and now just wanted to zone out on my way home and not have to interact anymore. I politely went back to watching my video.

Not five minutes later, she tapped me on the arm. “If zay really appreciate our patience, zay could give us a drink! Now zat would be appreciation!” she said with a twinkle in her eye. Now the old lady had my attention. I like a drink or two myself and had already definitively decided to get one on-board once we got in the air. If we ever got in the air. I paused my video and took out my earphones.

“Yes, now that would really be showing us their appreciation!” I said warmly. “Why don’t they do that for making us wait?” She shrugged her shoulders in mock question, her eyes narrowing as if contemplating becoming a leader of a nascent revolution among the passengers pointing out the hypocrisy of the airline and demanding drinks for tardy departures. Again the conversation ended and I went back to my video.

Finally, two and a half hours late, we departed. About an hour into the flight, when the drink cart began to come around, I took out the free drink coupons I had due to my flying status, tore off two, and handed one to her. “Would you like to have a glass of wine?” I asked presumptively, given her earlier interest in a drink and further assuming her drink of choice might be wine due to the accent.

“I don’t know, how much does it cost?” she immediately replied.

I waved the coupon in front of her face a little more obviously. “No, here’s a coupon. Because we had to wait for takeoff,” I said.

She took it like it was the gold coupon found by Charlie winning entrance to the Chocolate Factory. She looked at it in amazement, and then up at me. “I, I, I, I, well…yes…zank you very much.”

“No problem,” I said quickly and went back to what I was doing so as to make her not feel obliged to thank me further.

When the flight attendant got to us, I ordered a Budweiser and sure enough, she ordered white wine. The drinks came, and the flight attendant came back to collect the coupons. I handed her mine, and the old lady’s was in her hand but she was quite busy concentrating on opening the screw top of her small bottle–and failing. The flight attendant held out her hand further to the old lady. She waved her off with an angry frown, “No, no, it’s OK. I can do it,” she said bruskly as she continued to struggle, beginning to crack the perforations in the screw top.

I leaned in close to her. “No, she wants your coupon,” I said gingerly.

She paused for the slightest second as recognition came over her face. “Oh, yes, yes, of course,” she said, that charming smile returning to her face. She handed the coupon over, and with a new frown fixed on the bottle, struggled to finish the task of opening the screw cap. I went back to my laptop.

A little while later, without warning, she turned to me and proclaimed, with profound, but somewhat mock awe, “Did zhoo know, we are flying on a Rolls Royce?”

In fact, in an earlier career, I was an engineer for GE Aircraft Engines, one of the makers of large jet engines that are sold for the Boeing 737, the model we were presently flying. The other two competitors being the American company Pratt & Whitney, and the British, Rolls Royce. So I immediately recognized what she was saying. There was probably a logo on the engine nacelle outside her window. I leaned over to glance out the window to confirm, and sure enough, there was the mark of the famous car company.

“Yes, isn’t that interesting,” I said. “We’re pretty special,” I added with a smile of my own while she relished in her clever observation. Again, the conversation ended.

The flight finally coming to an end, I had to pack away my electronics. In a much better mood now on account of the beer, a little escapism watching the premier of The Americans on my iPad, and in no small part to this little old lady’s charm and humor, an earnest conversation began between us.

In the short time left in the flight I learned that she was originally from Bordeaux. She had lived there during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. Her brother had fought for the Resistance Movement and at one point a rumor spread that Germans were in town asking for him by name. She and her brother immediately escaped to south-eastern France, occupied by Fascist Italy. They were safe there because, “Italians are not really soldiers zhoo know, zay are just interested in zee pretty girls on zee beach” She waved her hand dismissively. Her father however, was not so lucky. He had fought in World War I and had survived a German mustard gas attack. As a consequence, his lungs were damaged and weak. The Nazi’s came to their house and not finding her brother, took her father instead. He was in prison for several months and finally died there, as his lungs gave out.

She divorced one husband in the late forties after the war and got a job as a nanny in England. She always wanted to come back to France, so upon the nanny job coming to an end, got a job working for the now-occupying US Air Force in France. In addition to her official duties as a translator, she also helped the American families get settled, helped their kids acclimate to school, and involved herself in most aspects of her employer’s lives. She became so close to one family that a few years later, they sponsored her immigration to the United States.

“How did you learn English so well in the first place?” I asked.

“Oh I zhust studied it in school, and I loved the language so much that I keep studying it after grade school as well. But I had no one to speak to, so I zhust learned from books. Zat’s why I never lost my French accent. Reading zee words, you read zem as they would sound with French letter sounds. People have tried to get me to loose my accent, but I just never could,” she said with a chuckle.

“I still imagined I would take my skills learned in America and go back to France. I even went to university here and got a Bachelors in Clinical Psychology, but sixty years later, here I am still,” she said flopping her hands down into her lap, a little deflated but still smiling up at me. This was when I learned she was 92 years old. Yes I thought, her size, her hands, her frail movements did speak of her age, but her wit, her humor, the glow on her face and twinkle in her eye were timeless.

“Zhoo know one time, ” she began, “I was in an elevator, and these kids were there, you know how kids like to push all the buttons? And they were pushing the buttons, and one accidently bumped me. It was really an accident, he didn’t mean to do it, but when he bumped me I fell over and broke my hip.” I winced. “And you know I was in incredible pain. It’s very painful when you break your hip, and the only thing I can remember from when it happened was one of the kids leaning over me and saying, ‘Is she dead?’ and the other one leaned over to look and said, ‘No, she’s still breathing,'” and she let out a hearty laugh. “You know it was just so crazy and funny. Here I was in incredible pain, and these two kids are asking, ‘Is she dead?’ It was like something you’d see in the movies!” she said with mirth and enjoyment.

“And I was very lucky you know. Zay say when you break your hip, that’s it, you have like six months to live, but I always try to look at the humorous side of things in life and zat keeps me going,” she concluded evenly.

She was travelling with her daughter, going to visit her son and grandchildren in Marin County, California. Her oldest grandchild is 40 and the youngest 7, I found out. Another set of children and grandchildren live in Texas.

As I said ‘goodbye’ and ‘Merry Christmas’ to her and began walking off the plane, I was struck by this fascinating old lady and the gift of meeting her that I had been given. I hoped sincerely that I live to be her age, have as much family around me as she does, and most of all maintain a fresh, child-like outlook on life, full of humor and goodwill even in the most trying times. The last quality undoubtedly the key to the first two.