Did you have to be so nice to the crazy lady?

We’d just eaten lunch at the Big Chicken, a major landmark Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Marietta, Georgia, and as we walked through the parking lot afterwards, my husband asked, “Did you have to be so nice to the crazy lady?”

“She wasn’t a crazy lady, she was just a nice person.”

Bear frowned. “She was wearing a weird hat.” It wasn’t a girly hat, nor was it a shade hat such as you’d see in July. Hence the weird reference.

“It wasn’t weird. I’ve seen those hats before. It was either religious, or cultural.”

“Hah!” he said, “Just like I said, she was weird.”

“She was really sweet and friendly. I liked her.”

“You would,” he joked. He didn’t mean it in a bad way as I fully own up to my own inner weirdness. After all, even my best friend’s father called me, “The strange little girl who lives down the street.”

Like the “crazy lady” at the Big Chicken, I often talked to strangers. I’d come out of a public bathroom later than expected, to find a husband tapping his foot. “You sure were in there a long time…”

“I made a friend.”

It was a joke between me and Bear because it happened a lot.

The lady in question was an older black woman, wearing a hat, and she’d walked up to us in Kentucky Fried Chicken and started a friendly conversation. At first, we thought she worked there, maybe as a manager. Then, we thought maybe she was a religious missionary and that any moment, out would come the spiel. But nope, she was just a nice, chatty woman.

She thanked me for “saving” her from a pair of younger men, who’d laid some papers on an empty table and then gone to place their order. Clearly they’d laid claim to the table, and she went over with a tray full of food to sit down. She shoved the papers to the side and was about to crinkle them up as if trash from a previous diner.

I spoke out and told her that two men had just laid them down and gone up to order. She was very sweet and apologetic to me, and thanked me for saving her from the wrath of the men.

At one point she went over to the table next to us where a family of five had just sat down to eat. Two adults, three children. She struck up a pleasant conversation with the family, out of the blue, and Bear eyeballed me. “See…” his eyes said, “she’s crazy.”

We found out that that her birthday was in two days, on July 5, and I wished her a happy birthday.

As we were walking out the door of the Big Chicken, I turned around and waved, and wished her a happy birthday again. She smiled, and her whole face just lit up with joy.

The door closed and Bear said, “Did you have to be so nice to the crazy lady?”

I did not reply in kind. Instead, I mused that it was this very Big Chicken that my mother and I encountered, making memories that would last us both a lifetime.

Mom had come down thirty years earlier from Upstate New York in the mid-1980s, and the Big Chicken incident is memorialized in one of the first books I published entitled, Yankee Go Home. My mother was long since dead, and the crazy lady got me to thinking.

I said to Bear, “You know, if there really is such a thing as reincarnation, Mom could be reincarnated right now in anybody, even the crazy lady. After all, she could have been drawn to the Big Chicken.”

Bear doesn’t believe in reincarnation, or life after death in any form, so I just kept talking.

“She couldn’t be in the crazy lady though, the age is all wrong. Mom would be… let me see…” I did the math. “No older than a teenager right now!”

Wow. That was sobering. My mother, if reincarnated, could be any teenager on the planet, presuming that she’d come back as a human being and not something else. She could be a kid living in Africa, Ireland, Saudi Arabia, or Brazil. She could be anywhere!

In fact, any young person I meet on the street could be carrying the spirit of my dead mother. That was a heady thought.

I told Bear that maybe the crazy lady was just a lonely woman whose social interactions were limited to strangers on the street. “Maybe,” I mused, “this is the closest thing she’ll get to a happy birthday celebration.”

I wondered about the hat and tried to find it on the internet. It seems that Muslim men commonly wear hats of this nature. It looked a lot like an Islamic prayer cap. I couldn’t remember if it was blue or tan, only that it was a solid color, and I was sure I’d seen hats like this in reference to Africa.

The shape matched an African Kufi hat, of which Wikipedia says that in the United States, it is primarily identified with people from West Africa to show pride in their heritage, regardless of religion.

When worn by men, it is a sign of peace.

I can believe that. The “crazy woman” as Bear called her, exuded peace, love, tranquility, joy, and every good thing in this world, and I liked her. I felt a kinship with this woman — this stranger that we encountered at the Big Chicken — the very restaurant where my mother and I made strong memories thirty years earlier.

* * * * *

If you’ve read Yankee, Go Home, you’ll recognize the story of the Big Chicken in the Back Seat Drivers chapter. Yankee, Go Home is a mostly true tale of a Yankee in the South, with changes made to protect identities. Boys are girls, and girls are merged with other girls, to ensure everyone’s privacy. Only one chapter is pure fiction, and you’d never guess which one.

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