by Sara Lukinson           

The crowded, sticky-chaired airport lounge in Seattle filled with cranky passengers was about to be my entire Sunday until I met Shirley. The seat next to her was the only one free, and after I took it I let out a sigh, a grumph actually, about the long and inept security lines.

Her war story about a puffed-up security agent trumped mine. After Shirley’s "suspicious act" of not putting her liquid make-up in a separate plastic bag, the female guard took her aside and patted her down. Shirley, who is 70, told her to stop being ridiculous. The guard threatened a strip search. Shirley pre-empted her and started to take off her clothes, which put an end to that.

"I know that type of woman, who suddenly comes into power," she said, leaning across the armrest. "I’ve met them in prison."

Turns out cherubic looking Shirley has been teaching prisoners high school GED classes for most of her adult life. She tried to retire, but they kept asking her back.

"I’ve begun to think this is what I was born to do, and aren’t I lucky to have that," she said. "The prisoners don’t scare me. Actually, they love me. A woman there to give them something, including her full attention. They work hard. It makes me so happy, it makes me giggle. I never thought I had a destiny, but now I do."

After her husband died about seven years ago, another sweet man came along and began to dance and romance her. Then he started asking, "How much will you be getting for your pension?"

She almost didn’t catch on, until he mentioned the ownership papers to her house. "I can help with a lot around the house," he told her. "Do the yard work, and clear out the basement. Don’t pay me, just put my name on the papers."

Shirley lowered her head and raised her eyebrows. "I told him, ‘Not on your life, buddy. Scram.’ He must have thought I was so desperate for a man’s affection, I’d sign my life away — that the thought of being on my own scared the sense out of me."

I told her I had just turned 60 and that I had been visiting a man but was unsure how it was going to turn out. He seemed weighed down by post-divorce regrets and uncertain about how to move forward.

When her flight was announced, she took my hand like my friend would on the last day of camp. "You know, getting older can be very liberating. I know who I am, mistakes and all. I don’t worry so much about people’s opinion. I just want to get on with things now."

Then her face broke out in a smile, as if lit up by a discovery. She said that some friends had just bought a piece of land in Mexico overlooking the water, and she was thinking of buying land, too.

"All my life I’ve worked for security, but here I am at 70, and I want to do something daring. I never imagined doing it by myself, but it’s better than sitting home and feeling stuck," she said. "I figure I can find people to teach. You know, I still love those prepositions."

I got the feeling that saying it aloud to me was a way of reinforcing her courage, tying it tightly to her waist so it wouldn’t get away. And that as a natural born teacher, she was also helping me figure something out myself.

How lucky my plane had been delayed. And that neither one of us owned a cell phone.

Sara Lukinson is an Emmy-award-winning writer and producer of arts documentaries and television specials.

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