Dori worked in the deli at Safeway on Davie near Denman. She was forty something and made half her age in wages per hour. (It was the early nineties. There was a healthy collective agreement.) Dori had dark brown hair dyed a fire-lit red and a heart to match the heat of that hue. She was the oldest woman in the deli and she mothered us but never really felt older than us. She giggled. She hugged hard. She worked hard or at least harder than us. Her bean salad was divine. She had a Polish accent because she was from Poland (this is how it works, usually) and she’d come to Canada eighteen or nineteen years ago. She had a husband she’d had for fifteen years and kids she’d had for eighteen and thirteen years, respectively.
There’s a story in those numbers, of course.
Dori laughed and smiled except when she talked about her husband, who didn’t much delight her. I got the impression that he was overbearing, patriarchal, bossy, old-world; but I’m mostly surmising because she never said a lot about him. She was a talker, so there’s a story in that, too.
Dori talked a lot about her children, and when she did, she did the proud-mama-keep-on-glowing thing. I was nineteen. I’d never been friends with a mother of teenagers. I’d never seen anything like her indulgent maternal joy and I wondered if all mothers were like this. (They’re not.) I wondered if my mother talked about me like this but I doubted it. With good reason. For example, I also doubted that Dori’s daughter came home from university at Christmas and told her mother “You’re just mad at me because I’m smarter than you and you know it.” I didn’t know much about mothering – or even about my own mother, really – but I knew it had to be hard to wax proudly poetic about that kind of kid. And I was that kind of kid.
But Dori treated me like an adult. Like a woman. Like a peer. And so she was peerless in my eyes.
I’d do things – like really, truly execute every single closing duty at the deli if I knew she was opening the next morning – for her that I wouldn’t do for anyone else. And she did something for everyone else, too. She told the truth.
Like the time our deli manager, Laura, came to work wearing tinted glasses. Not sunglasses, exactly, but not exactly not sunglasses, either. And it was December. And she had two black eyes. And she was avoiding eye contact. I immediately assumed her boyfriend was an asshole and was wildly concerned which made her wildly uncomfortable. She calmed my fierce imaginings with the real story: a tumble off her bike – right over the handle bars, actually – on the sea wall. Freakin’ rollerblader came out of nowhere.
I believed her. Hell, last week I’d almost been her. Those rollerbladers really were out of control. And so it was good story. I told Dori the story later and that’s when I learned it was only a story.
Dori laughed ’til tears streamed down her face. “She didn’t have an accident. She had her eyes done!”
And so she had. And everyone knew except me, which made me wonder why I needed to be lied to – I was wounded, truth be told – and why women lie about cosmetic surgery. If I ever have anything done, I would (will!) laminate and carry and flash the receipt with proud abandon.
So I could trust Dori to tell the truth. About other people’s eyelifts and the secret of her spinach dip (it’s really good) and her marriage (not so good, and who ever admits that outside their circle of intimates?) and about her children.
Her thirteen year old son played soccer and was a joy. A joy. He made her laugh. He was affectionate and a mama’s boy and comical despite his precocious rigidity. He liked things a certain way. He was his father’s son. But, unlike his father, she talked about her son endlessly and was endlessly emotional about him. She loved him.
And then there was her daughter. If she glowed about her son, when she talked – or thought – about her daughter, her radiance was nearly nuclear. It was a daily day-glow love. She called her daughter her ‘love child’.
Because she really was. Dori’s daughter was not her husband’s child. In Poland, as a young woman, Dori had an affair with an older, Catholic, married man. And it was love. It was really, really love. And it couldn’t be. What came to be was that she became pregnant, left Poland, came to Canada and gave birth to her lovely little girl made from love.
Nearly two decades later, she softened when she told the story. She still loved that older, Catholic, married businessman. He visited yearly and every year her daughter went to Poland – presumably discreetly – to visit him. And even though he never left his wife, never made a life with Dori, left her to raise a child on her own, it had been love. It seemed like it was love, still. She talked about that man. She rarely talked about her husband.
Then, that was hard for me to grasp: I was a very young woman with polar, magnetic ideas about love and life. Like, if it was love then you made a life together. If you had a life together, you didn’t make love to – or love – someone else. So, if Dori’s lover was married, then he didn’t – couldn’t – really love her. It wasn’t really love. That’s what my dichotomized romantic morals and total lack of life experience told me. And that’s why I was stunned at the way she freely – proudly, romantically – “admitted” her transgression (the affair with a married man) and her mistake (the unwed pregnancy).
That was my reality. That’s probably most of the world’s reality. But it wasn’t Dori’s. She walked in the memory of her one true love. She looked at the living incarnation of that love, every day. Her daughter was her love child.
I wish everyone was a love child.