Back when I was in high school, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and before digital cameras took over the world, I worked in a photo shop. I worked mostly at the front, helping customers who dropped off their film and then collected their pictures.
Sometimes, though, my developing room coworkers would let me help them develop the photos, and I got to use all of the cool machinery, and touch the film and be in the dark room. It’s a process I’ve always found fascinating and romantic, so I was in heaven every time I would do it.
Anyway, one day I was working at the front counter, and a girl I went to school with came in to pick up a some pictures she had dropped off the week before. It was a batch I had personally helped develop, so I knew they had turned out and I flitted off happily to get them for her.
Only . . . I couldn’t find them.
I looked everywhere. In the back, in the black and white bin, in the special orders bin, in the developing room. They were nowhere to be found.
I sheepishly came back to the front counter and told her that I couldn’t find her pictures.
“I can’t believe this Carla, where are they? You lost them?” she said sternly – like she was scolding a child.
“Well, I didn’t lose them,” I said. “A lot of people work here, not just me. I don’t know where they are. I’m so sorry. I’ll keep looking!”
“You better find them. I’ll be back later,” she said.
I understood her frustration and spent my lunch break looking for her photos in a fit of panicked guilt. I even took to moving the large photo machinery, interviewing the other staff at length about where on earth the pictures could have gone, and crawling into a small cupboard to see if they had fallen behind a loose slat at the back of it. I never found them, and my coworkers thought I had gone insane.
After lunch, I nervously waited for the girl to come back. I was in a pathetic state. I looked around skittishly, paced the store, rearranged things that didn’t need to be rearranged. Confrontation is not my strong suit.
As I tried to calm myself by alphabetizing the pictures in the ready for pick-up bin, an older man walked up to the counter.
He had white hair, clear, kind blue eyes, and he wore a poppy on the left lapel of his grey jacket, even though it was June. (In Canada, we usually wear poppies in November in celebration of Remembrance Day, which honors our soldiers).
“Excuse me, my dear,” the older gentleman said.
“Hello, how can I help you? Do you have film to drop off?” I replied, rapid-fire.
“No, no,” he said, “I just wanted to give you this.”
He reached into a little white box he was holding and produced a beautiful pink and orange hibiscus flower, and placed it in my hands.
“My wife died five years ago,” he said. “She was the loveliest, most wonderful woman I’ve ever known. She laughed a lot, and she had an energy made people feel warm and happy.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” I said as I delicately held the flower in my palms of my hands.
“That there was her favorite flower. Every year, on her birthday, I buy one and give it to a woman who reminds me of her.”
I smiled at him.
“You’re not a woman yet, but you will be soon,” he said.
“Put it in water, ok?” he said as he squeezed my hand. “My dear, I hope that one day you will be loved and adored as much as my wife was.”
And with that, he let go, turned around and walked out of the store.
I watched him leave and then looked down at the flower in my hand. It seemed to be radiating happiness.
I felt like I had just witnessed some sort of miracle. That nervousness that had eaten at me all day was replaced by a light, still calm. Like I was on a beach in Maui, where these flowers grow so freely, on a perfect, sunny day. Tranquil.
When the girl came back later that day, I decided that if she had calmed down about the situation, I’d give her the gorgeous hibiscus flower the old man gave me and maybe it would brighten her day, too. Pay it forward, so to speak.
As she walked up, I told her that I had looked everywhere I could have looked and that I was very sorry, but her pictures weren’t here.
“You threw my pictures out on purpose, didn’t you?” she said.
“What? No, of course not!” I said. “This happens sometimes, it was just a mistake.”
“I’m going to come back when you’re not here and talk to you manager,” she said.
“Ok, fine, whatever you want,” I said.
“”You’re a bitch!” she snapped.
I looked down at the lovely flower under the counter, and then looked into her eyes.
“I’m very sorry for your loss,” I said as she shot daggers at me with her eyes.
Later that day, I gave the flower to the loveliest woman I know – and one I’m sure the gentleman would approve of – my mom.