I walked into a pub in Gettysburg famished and cold, hoping they had French onion soup on the menu. The Black & Gray had been recommended to me by the hotel receptionist (“They have all these burgers on the menu named after Confederate generals and depending on which one you order, it’ll come with a Confederate or U.S. flag!”).
When I walked in after taking laps of the battlefield and cemetery, however, it was packed to the gills with March Madness revelers.
Kitty-corner across the street was a place that looked cozy and nice and was beautifully devoid of sportspeople. There were people waiting, but there was plenty of space at the bar on either side of a woman with short white hair. I asked if she was saving the seat for anyone and when she said no, I sat. Within a couple of minutes, we struck up a conversation, which spanned the next few hours and a wide swath of subjects. We talked business — she’s about to retire after more than 30 years in IT — and we chatted about traveling and about food. She asked about my trip, and I obliged, filling in all of the details and then some. “You’re so brave!” she exclaimed. I sat on that for a minute and responded into my soup, “I’m terrified.”
“You’re terrified and still doing it, anyway? That’s even braver. That’s the definition of bravery.”
At this point, we hadn’t made formal introductions. It wasn’t until she was talking about living in Cleveland near her family (she moved from York, Pennsylvania), and how her niece was excited to have Uncle Gary and Aunt Deb close by that I knew her name.
She was overjoyed to be on the cusp of retirement, and after I told her about my plans, she announced I’d inspired her, and that she would love to take a long road trip after she turned in her badge and laptop and signed off from her network for the last time. She began to think of themes, and we talked about grocery stores around the world, and how she loves to bring spices back from the countries she visits. One of her favorite places is southwestern India. I hope to be as well-traveled and down-to-earth as she is when I’m older. M and I love grocery stores and we bring things back with us for ourselves and each other wherever we go, too!
Somewhere around this time, she mentioned Germany and fascism and 45. That the fascist is in the White House right now, and worse than any found in Germany. “I don’t know your politics, but…” cemented an already pretty tight bond.
Deb encouraged me to visit Harpers Ferry, she told me about Roadfood for the states I have no idea where to find food, and handed me her card and told me to call her if I’m ever in Cleveland. When I asked her how she likes Cleveland, her whole face lit up. She loves the town, loves the art, loves the parks system. People know each other there, and she feels like she found a place she belongs.
I told her of my belonging experience from a couple of weeks ago. It was a Wednesday morning, and I was waiting for the mail person to come to the door with a Certified Mail delivery containing my car’s title. It hadn’t come by noon, so I checked the box, saw the pink slip, and called the local outpost.
“Hi, thanks for calling the Baldwin Post Office, this is Deb,” the person greeted in a cheery, yet quiet Wisconsin accent.
“Hi Deb, I’m hoping you can help me with a little conundrum.”
The pink slip bore my dad’s name. In New York, I’d need a full Act of Congress to get the post office branch to release that envelope to me. I simply explained to Deb that I needed that mail because it contained my car’s title and I couldn’t just come down to get it because the slip had my dad’s name on it.
She took the address and ducked out to intercept my carrier. On realizing she had the wrong one, she asked for my name and number, and promised she’d call me back after she spoke with the correct carrier.
I gave her my number and spelled my name.
She took in a breath and held it for a minute. You know how you can feel people think over the phone?
“You’re — Niki Tymesen’s your mother!”
I laughed. I’d not expected this, but I wasn’t surprised. “She is, indeed.”
“I used to babysit you when you were an infant!”
That one caught me off-guard to the point an awkward “thank you!” was all I could muster. She assured me she’d call me right back and we hung up. About a minute later, there she was, letting me know to expect the carrier to circle back with the mail soon.
It’s been so long I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be home and to run into someone who knew my family. My dad’s family isn’t as well-known, wasn’t as prominent in town, and my dad wasn’t the butterfly my mom (still) is. But our name is hard to forget, and even though I go to my dad’s to disappear, it’s not always possible.
What’s extra fun is that not many of the old guard in town knows who my dad is, so to hear me say that I’m in his care must be a bit of an extra shock.
I told Deb (in the pub) all of this, and she told me about being an Army brat, and not being in one place long enough to form connections like that until she was an adult. It’s amazing how intimately you can get to know someone over the course of a few hours, by virtue of being open, friendly, solo-female travelers. Sometimes, that intimacy even lies in the details you don’t share, the tone of voice you use. It felt like I’d known Deb for years; like she was an aunt I don’t see too often but am close with nonetheless.
When we finally called it an evening, she reiterated to me that I should call if I’m near Cleveland — which I fully plan to do. She also told me she was excited for my trip, for my opportunity to reinvent myself. “No, wait. It’s not a reinvention, because you don’t need reinventing. You’re reaccessorizing yourself.”
It’s funny how the universe sets down women to guide you and comfort you on your journey. Deb was right: I don’t need reinventing. I’m pretty happy with myself at the core. But who doesn’t love, can’t use, different bangles and baubles? The secret not many people know is that those bits and danglies are great when they’re brand new and shiny, but even better when passed on and down from women who know a thing or two and are willing to share that information with you.
At least, that’s what I think I’ve learned from the influx of Debs. It’s too much of a coincidence to not be ordained by the stars.