Found story: All from a sweater

I’ve worked at Walmart for the last six months. Yesterday was my last day. It was a terrible job in many ways, but one thing I did love was gathering stories and characters–fleeting glimpses of people that stuck with me. I think of them as found stories. Mostly, I see just a brief image–an Asian woman, herding her tiny, round grey-haired mother into the store, or a man with wild grey hair and a wild grey beard and his all fingernails rotted away–but every once in a while, to my delight I get more details.

The other day, an older gentleman came up to me from the pharmacy and asked to borrow a pen so that he could write down his blood pressure. He was just turning to go when I asked, rather unexpectedly, “Did someone make that sweater for you?”

The sweater in question looked to have been made out of bright blue Red Heart Super Saver–solid, except for a couple stripes made out of matching variegated blue yarn. It had a crocheted hem and button band, and a zipper. There was a bit of dried food crusted onto the button band, by the zipper. It was obviously handmade, but also quite well constructed. It’s pretty rare to see someone in my town wearing a handknit sweater, so I felt it was worth asking.

I had to repeat myself before he understood, but then he brightened and told me his wife had made it; she’s Navajo, and her craftmanship, he told me, is superb.

I smiled, and told him it was a beautiful sweater. And then, I don’t know what it was, but he started talking to me.

He told me that because of his wife’s handiwork is so fine, he hasn’t needed a belt in thirty years. He used to teach school, and he favored jumpsuits, which his wife made for him. He saw her making them, once, and realized that she made the pants and top separately and sewed them together, so he asked her if she couldn’t make them out of different materials, so it looked like a normal shirt and pants.

So, he went around for all those years wearing jumpsuits that looked like normal clothing. He told me, people used to say, “How is it that Mr. Queen is the only teacher here whose shirttails are always tucked in?”

He told me how he earned the respect of the people on the reservation by eating their food without disgust or disdain. They would invite teachers into their homes, and feed them. One of the things they fed them was blood pudding–the other teachers would refuse to eat it, but he ate it.

(I could have told him how I had a similar experience, how I was initiated into my Vietnamese family over a dish of congealed duck blood, but it didn’t feel right to talk about myself; he was on a roll, and I was enjoying listening.)

The other teachers justified their refusal to eat it by saying that the Bible says not to eat blood. But, he told me, most people don’t understand what it means to be Christian. He took on an instructional tone. There are only two principles at the heart of Christianity, he told me. He asked me if I knew Matthew 6:14. I confessed that I didn’t.

Matthew 6:14, he told me, says that if you forgive, you’ll be forgiven. That’s all. And if you don’t forgive, you won’t be. That’s the first principle at the heart of Christianity. The second is love your neighbor as yourself. Those are the only things that actually matter.

I nodded, and listened. His Christianity had its heart in a very different place than the Christianity I grew up with, and I liked his quite a lot more. The Christianity I knew said that it didn’t matter what you did, you were condemned if you didn’t confess Jesus as savior. In his, though, there was more emphasis on attitude and action. It would have made my Sunday School teachers shake their heads, but I liked it.

He was clean-shaven, but he had long, wild, grey eyebrows, like down feathers, and his eyes leaked tears as he talked; not from emotion, he told me, but because he has a disease (his word) that makes his eyes tear up at odd moments. Every so often, he’d reach up and wipe a tear away from the weathered skin under his eyes.

I listened to him until I had to step away to help someone else, and before he left, he thanked me for talking to him. It was good, for once, to listen to someone else instead of talking about myself. I came away from the conversation with little pearls of beauty, and I think he appreciated having an welcoming ear for a few minutes on a Sunday afternoon in Walmart.