Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Kindness of Strangers

This picture is what my radiologist/writer husband calls a 'hook.' It seems in concert though, with what will follow in my post, as it was an exchange between strangers, a Cape Cod fisherman and a mother and her little boy. This rugged 'man's man' was happily indulging a stranger's need - in this instance a need to smile shly and hug a cuddly dog.

After yesterday's post about Mother and our wandering through the hills of central Ohio in springtime to find the house my great-grandfather built and the cemetery where he and assorted ancestors rest, my mind is still meandering among the winding roads that fall sharply downward into shaded ravines and abruptly bank skyward requiring a firm pressure on the gas pedal as you climb up to next rise of uneroded glacial till.

Here's the memory that wandered in this morning. It was the early '50's. I think I was 5, maybe 6 years old. Grandpa Reiheld was at the wheel of a cranky old car that lurched and spewed gravel as we took a Sunday drive toward Glenmont to visit his cousins' families. While shifting into lower gears to get traction and still prevent stalling, the car would lunge backward and Grandma would grab the dashboard and suplicate the intervention of the blessed mother: "Hail Mary, Hail Mary!" I can still hear her, teeth clenched, ready to spring from the front seat in terror as the rest of us were sucked backward into the void. Grandma never learned to drive. She never learned to trust.

Then, the unthinkable. The car sputtered, grandpa cursed and the car stopped as he judiciously applied the emergency brake. Out of gas. The rest is a sad little blur except for this: I was terror- stricken, on a great graveled incline in a great wood, with two adults to whom today, we would apply the word 'dysfunctional' .

The crux of the story: A passing car stopped and offered assistance. One of the most tender memories of my childhood is the woman who saw my pain and stooped shelteringly beside me and reassured me that everything would be fine. Tears of gratitude sting my eyes as I write this and I rejoice in the goodness that lies at the heart of most human beings.

Decades later, when my other grandmother, Gladys, died, I tucked a note into the satin lining of her coffin that said simply: You were the gentlest, kindest light in my life. Your caring for us, the birthday cards that always arrived till the year you died - I will pass this on, Grandma - I will remember.

I've failed in so many ways to fulfill that promise. Yesterday, I made a few phone calls to the frail little women that I drive to a monthly macular degeneration meeting. We talked for hours. They think I'm kind. They tell me so. I try to tell them what they bring to my life, how I love their feisty, gentle souls. What is this miracle that resonates across time, distance, memory; between generations, strangers and friends? I hesitate to tell you that I know that it also resonates between brains - yes, I am refering to ESP. But, there, now you're probably rolling your eyes and I've lost the few readers who'd been drawn forward by the promise of a good dog story:0)

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12 comments:

Anvilcloud said...

That's a great memory to have pop in for a visit. I like it when that happens.

LauraHinNJ said...

Good story, dog or no.

I think what they say is true, that we get more by giving than we at first realize.

bev said...

Well, you didn't lose me at the end of the story, and your lead-in photo is terrific. As for the kindness of strangers -- I don't think we realize how great the impact of even what seems the smallest of gestures. Quite a few years ago, my Mom sent a letter to one of her very elderly aunts. She wrote about a particular week when that aunt came to stay at our family cottage and we did a bunch of fun things together (an old-fashioned taffy-pull party and some other similar things). When my aunt died, the letter was found in the pocket of the apron she was wearing - apparently, she kept it with her all the time and used to read it over almost every day. The letter was such a seemingly small gesture but must have meant so much. I may see if I can dig up an old photo of my mom's aunt and do a post about it sometime soon.

Cathy said...

Thanks AC - seems the older I get, the more reminiscing I do.

Laura - Glad you stopped by. Read Bev's comment below. You just never know the lovely ripples you may create.

Cathy said...

Bev - Your comment was so moving. It brought back a memory from 20 years ago. At my uncle's funeral, his wife, who was a rather remote woman, got up from the table at the meal after the service - moved behind the large assembly of seated family and friends and stopped behind me. She leaned over my shoulder and whispered: "Cathy, the letter you sent to Bob when we were in Arizona for his therapy; we read and re-read it. So many get-well cards were maudlin and depressing - yours told about the wonder of a spring walk you'd taken with your son in a still bare Spring woods and of the butterfly that landed on his shoulder and of the pileated woodpecker that flew just over your heads. I wanted you to know how he enjoyed that."

I started to tear up and she lifted her face from mine and drifted back to her chair and back into the remote world that she inhabited, but from which she had briefly emerged to pass a pat on the shoulder from my uncle.

Cathy said...

Er, Laura - that's please read Bev's comment 'above' :0)

Bob Strong said...

And I can say that my 'sis' is pure kindness...the type and size of gentleness that can only come from perhaps a much longer lineage than two wonderful grand mothers...ancestors whom we didn't know but would may have left a 'similar' note with other family 'remains'...but that will remain for ESPers...your bro, bob

Anonymous said...

My son sends cards, notes, letters and photos to my dad. No matter what the occasion, my son sends something. On my last visit, I noticed the latest one (a funny Halloween card) affixed to the fridge door. I made a comment to my dad about it and he took me to his bedroom, pulled open a drawer in his dresser and showed me what I can only imagine to be hundreds of notes, letters, photos, report cards, and birthday, Christmas and anniversary cards. I think he saved every single thing that my mother, brother, son and I had ever given him. Looking through them was like taking a peak into the past and I was shocked at how much it all meant to him. There was even a grocery list in my mom’s handwriting. He told me it was the last one she wrote before she went into the hospital for the last time. We both cried.

Cathy said...

dmmgmfm - That is so touching. And, what a powerful reminder as to the happiness a little thoughtfulness can bring into the lives of others. Imagaine that: your mom's last grocery list. So tender, so sad. I'm glad you shared this.

Bonita said...

What a touching story, Cathy. I think of all the shy, yet inquisitive souls I've seen in my lifetime, who create a deep impact. Life is full of exquisite wonderment. Thanks for sharing.

Bonita said...

What a touching, wonderful story, Cathy. I think of all the shy, unforgettable, souls that contribute to the beauty of life, who never leave our memory. One such woman was my friend Carol, who died of a brain anyurism at age 29. We were the closest of friends, and the memory of her is still so clear after over 40 years. Somewhere in 'Flitzy' I've written a post about her.

Cathy said...

Bonita, I remember that post - I believe Carol died in your arms. I remember commenting that, given that her life was slipping away, she was blessed to be in your gentle strong arms.