WOODSTOCK, Va. — It was a hot, muggy Monday afternoon in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The humid hours and minutes felt like fat dominos, too heavy to gather momentum and topple over onto one another. It was the kind of afternoon that just gives up and waits for dusk to arrive with a fan and an extra lemonade.
I stepped outside my office on Main Street in Woodstock for a thick walk to our small-town post office. It was time to clear my lousy head after punching through several lousy drafts of a lousy column that now sits in my digital trashcan.
I took the long way, despite the heat, and extended the stroll by several blocks. I watched cars and other pedestrians pass by, waved at a few strangers and wondered what I was missing.
Then, when I returned to my building — a quaint movie theater from another era — I met a remarkable woman who rewrote my afternoon, this very column, and maybe, just maybe, my outlook on life.
Betty Pelletier, 89, of Woodstock, Va., was sitting alone on a bench outside my office eating a snack when I sat down next to her to say, "Hello." I learned she was returning home from a doctor’s appointment and an errand at the opposite end of Main Street. She’d walked from one end of town to the other and back again.
I’d barely taken a seat when she said confidently, “Everything happens for a reason.”
During the early moments of our 90-minute visit, I convinced myself that spending the time with the sweet woman would be good for her. But by the time we said, "Goodbye," I realized it hadn’t been good for her — it had been good for me.
After the usual pleasantries, I learned that Pelletier moved to the area four years ago from Arlington, Va. The Florida native had been in northern Virginia for most of her adult life, working as a secretary and typist in Washington, D.C. Four years ago she moved to Woodstock to care for her former husband, a man she hadn’t associated with in years. “There was no one else,” she said. “And everyone deserves to be cared for.”
Sadly, soon after she uprooted and planted herself in town, the man developed Alzheimer’s and was checked into a long-term care facility. The arrangement was no longer necessary, but here she was to stay.
I turned to face her. “You know, Betty, not many people would do that.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Everything happens for a reason.”
Pelletier spoke fondly of the man who still lives, but because of illness does not know her. She talked of his career driving tour buses, including a longtime gig driving the legendary Smokey Robinson. The two men became friends, and though her former husband wouldn’t remember, she suspects Robinson would. The warm memory brought a smile to her face and mine.
My new friend shared with me the second love of her life and a long-distance relationship that survived the odds. Though he no longer lives, her memories of him are as crisp as the days they unfolded. They have two children she wishes she saw more often and two grandchildren she loves dearly.
Once, as she told a particular story, I interrupted her to clarify a point. "Well, if you'd just let me finish," she quipped.
Later during our conversation, two elderly women approached asking if we knew where a nearby beauty salon was located. My friend, not content to simply point and give directions, stood immediately and asked me to watch her things. “I’ll be right back.” She led the older of the two women by the arm, tenderly supporting her as they moved down the sidewalk. The side-by-side sight of the three women was almost poetic.
Pelletier returned five minutes later and picked up right where she’d left off.
We discussed a new bakery in town, her friends at the seniors’ center and how much the facility and the people mean to her. We talked about books, history and our shared experiences of falling down the stairs from the second floor to the first. “Just a sprain and a bruise,” she said with relief. “You?”
“I rode my plastic motorcycle down the stairs when I was 4.” I pointed to the scar on the back of my head and she stifled a laugh, but not a smile.
Soon my daughters drove by and pulled over to say hello to their dad and a stranger sitting on a bench. I asked, “Would you mind if my daughter took a picture?”
My beautiful pal laughed and her eyes widened. “Without lipstick?”
Because I know an 89-year-old woman on a fixed income with no car or family nearby has few options, I insisted on giving Pelletier my cellphone number, my wife’s number and my word that if she needed a ride to the doctor, the store or anywhere in between, we’d be there.
Before I left I asked this woman of a thousand stories if she would mind if I shared hers with my readers. After the predictable “no-one-wants-to read-about-me” response, she gave me three things she would want the world to know about a long life well lived.
“We should pray every morning.”
“We should live each day like it’s our last. You never know,” she paused to watch a car pass. “You just never know.”
“And last?” I wondered aloud.
"Like I said," she smiled. "Everything happens for a reason.”
Jason Wright is a New York Times bestselling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters," and "The 96th Annual Apple Valley Barn Dance." He can be reached at [email protected] or jasonfwright.com.