She Brightened My Day

Gray skies pressed down on a long, wind-whipped line of motionless vehicles full of travelers trying to get home after Thanksgiving. Gloom descended as Joel and I watched the stalled traffic for signs of movement, avoided looking at the bad-news clock, and entertained mean-spirited thoughts about I-80.Then I noticed a female truck driver. She’d stopped her semi in the outside lane next to us when the traffic backup stalled us somewhere between Rock Springs and Rawlins, Wyoming. She smiled through clouds of cigarette smoke and motioned for me to roll down my window.female trucker“There’s a pileup five miles ahead involving several vehicles that lost control on black ice, so we’ll be here a while. Thought you’d want to know; I’ll keep you informed.”

I can stand almost anything — furnace failures, root canals, airplane delays — if I’m told the truth about the time or pain involved and then receive periodic updates. I hate it when I hear, “This won’t take a minute,” and then endure a lengthy medical procedure, uninformed, while a doctor and nurses chat over my tense body.

So I appreciated the friendly trucker and the updates she continued to provide until the line of misery began to move.

But it was something else she did that permanently installed her in my gallery of good folks. After two or three cars zipped around her rig on the shoulder of the road so they could squeeze back in farther up the line, she pulled her two-trailer truck over, blocked the shoulder, and put a stop to their nonsense.

When several horns in addition to ours applauded her maneuver, she laughed and waved her ball cap out the window.

She’ll never know how often I think about her with a smile on my face. Stuck in traffic on a bleak day in Wyoming, she brightened the day for several weary travelers, which is a fine way to do some good in the world.

 

Giving

 

Organics potatoes

I studied a modest home and its fields from my window seat in the school bus and felt uneasy. People disliked the family that lived there; I didn’t know why.

World War II had ended, and the farmers in the rural area where I was raised worked their fields and tended their crops with renewed energy, anticipating a good yield. Then the rain quit falling.

Sugar beets, alfalfa, and corn withered under an unrelenting sun. Folks watched the sky and worried — with one exception: the Japanese man who’d recently rented the Peterson place.

As larger crops failed, his vegetable gardens grew green under a patient hand and judicious irrigation. He and his family tended lush rows that contrasted with the desolation of the surrounding acres owned by others.

But as his produce prospered, his family suffered. Perhaps because the war was recent, or because he succeeded where others failed, the people of the small community shunned and scorned him and his loved ones, turning their backs to him at the gas pumps, refusing to sit by his children on the bus.

A meager harvest was taken that fall, and as winter gained momentum, families prepared for hardship. Fathers searched for part-time jobs and Santa Claus exercised thrift.

Then, in the bleakness of January, the gifts appeared. A mother of five, investigating a noise on her back porch, found a sack of potatoes leaning against the railing. An elderly couple, expecting a Sears’s catalogue, discovered a basket of winter squash beneath their mailbox. A young husband, lowering the tailgate of his pickup, saw a cardboard box filled with carrots.3ec02bce-b49b-4fae-a353-642087404172

Finally, winter gave surly way to bird-singing, flower-bursting spring. Once again, farmers wheeled tractors around fields, believing this year would be better. And as summer followed spring, the rains fell; the crops thrived; hope soared.

No one noticed that the Peterson place stood empty once again.

As nature continued to reward hard work, pride softened. Soon, with averted eyes, men broached the subject of the winter gifts. In hesitating sentences, passed awkwardly, they mentioned what they’d been given and asked if anyone knew the giver. One among them had the answer:

“I can tell you who it was. Early on a March morning, unable to sleep, I was standing in the dark kitchen, staring out the window, when a beat-up car I recognized approached. It stopped briefly by my barn, dropped something off, and drove on.”

“I ran outside, bathrobe blowing in the breeze, and found a sack of root vegetables by the milk cans. Each one looked like it had been handpicked and scrubbed, just for me. I ran a few steps, yelling, ‘Thank you,’ after the disappearing tail lights. Hell, I couldn’t even call out his name; I had never bothered learning it. Later, when I drove by to shake his hand, he and his family were gone.”

In subsequent years, I heard the story of the Japanese farmer and his winter gifts many times. And each time, I knew I was hearing how to give: share what you have with those in need without judging the recipients and without expecting recognition — whether or not it’s Christmas.

 

 

Random Acts of Kindness

images-8When I first started Aunt Beulah with its focus on living well to age well, I fretted about the categories I’d chosen, especially one inelegantly titled, “Do Some Good.” Worried that posts about serving others would seem preachy or self-righteous, I pictured my no-frills great-aunt hooting dismissively as she wiped her hands on her apron front and thought, “The girl should quit writing about good deeds and actually do some.”

I also knew that when I overcome my hesitant, slightly sluggish nature and manage to do something thoughtful for others, I am a happier person.

After weeks of thinking I should visit a neighbor confined to a nursing home — and feeling virtuous for having such a worthy intention  — I realized that planning to serve others and not following through was as ridiculous as my junior-high habit of pretending to play my clarinet while parading because I couldn’t tootle and march at the same time.

So I called the home, asked about the best time to visit, and showed up. My neighbor’s openhearted happiness when I entered her room shamed me. Why had I hesitated to do something we both enjoyed so much?

Serving others needn’t be public or epic; we can’t all endow a library or live like Mother Theresa. The small acts of random kindness we read about on bumper stickers can be as gratifying and meaningful as grander gestures.Unknown-6

My dad understood this. He quietly helped those who needed it by giving what he could: his time, his work, his resources. I remember eating Kentucky Fried Chicken in a city park during a family trip when a man with bleary eyes, matted hair, and an unpleasant odor approached us. “I’m hungry,” he said.

To my open-mouthed dismay — I’d been about to help myself to seconds — Dad took the bucket of chicken, loaded in the uneaten fixings, and handed it over along with a folded bill. The man left without comment; I looked pained; Dad finished his plate of food, and Mom smiled at him in that special way she sometimes did.

I also see strangers demonstrate kindness.

images-9In July, I was propping up the toppling daisies in my yard when a large dog ran headlong out of an alley and into a pickup truck before the driver could brake or swerve. The dog yelped and rolled, then tried to get to his feet. The driver stopped, jumped from the truck, and approached the animal as his wife rolled down her window, saying, “Oh, I hope he’s not hurt.”

Speaking quietly and calmly, the young man carefully ran his hands over the animal’s body, then checked the tags on its collar. His wife was on her cell phone calling the owner, when the dog jumped up and took off in a limping run, disappearing around the corner. The last I saw, the dog was trotting along the sidewalk with determination while the truck traveled slowly alongside, watching over him, seeing him home.

The scene could have played out many different ways had not a young couple taken the time to postpone their plans and do some good.

Lessons from Life

UnknownWhat have you learned from living? …and how would your learnings compare to those of the late Maya Angelou: memoirist, poet, national treasure. I hope you enjoy her reflections on life. She captures in a few eloquent words what Aunt Beulah tries to say with so many. 

“I’ve learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow. I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.

I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you’ll miss them when they’re gone from your life. I’ve learned that making a ‘living’ is not the same thing as making a life. I’ve learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance.

I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.

I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision.

I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one. I’ve learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone. People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back.

I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Maya Angelou
in an interview with Oprah Winfrey

 

Please leave a comment 

 

The Will to Serve

She Made a Difference

I had high expectations, a new grade level, a new reading program, a summer of preparation behind me, and thirty-three, high-spirited fourth-grade students in a room built for twenty-five.

We worked hard and made progress, but each night I carried increasing weariness and stacks of papers home with me.

Then one day after school, a student’s grandmother entered my classroom, waving the letter I’d sent home in hopes of finding volunteers willing to help us.

Wearing a flowered house dress on a stout body and tilting forward from the waist on her orthopedic shoes, she sailed into my classroom like a handsome profile on the prow of a ship: all business and on the move.

clip-art-freeEighty-years old with shining eyes above a prominent nose, she briskly shook my hand and assured me she’d be in my room every day for any two hours I wanted, on time and ready to work. She’d raised too many kids to be scared of them. She could be of use; she was ready to start, and “Y’all can call me Miz Esther.”

Oh, how we loved her.

I watched and listened the first day as she completed the tasks I had described: She began by circulating among the children as they worked, applauding and helping; she then listened to individuals read: laughing and chatting with them about the story, ignoring slowness, hesitancy, and minor errors, while praising victories. Next, she checked and approved assignments students brought to her or sent them to their seats with suggestions on how to improve: always with a smile, sometimes, when needed, with a hug.

I relaxed, worked with small groups or individuals with complete concentration, and knew we had a treasure.

All year my students circled in her sunshine. We relied on her, and she met all challenges, even playing the bit part of a grumpy baker in a play we produced, shaking a rolling-pin and grumbling with conviction.

For two years, she graced my classroom with her presence, her only pay being smiles, notes, hugs, and small gifts from appreciative children.

Then the August day came when I learned from her daughter that her mom wouldn’t be returning to school that fall. As the children she had worked with shopped for back-to-school clothes, she died, surrounded by her large, loving family.

I attended her crowded funeral and reflected on her patience, her generosity, and her will to serve: to help others, to make my classroom a place of increased learning opportunities; to be of use.

The students and parents sprinkled among the mourners proved the worth of those efforts. Their young faces looking unusually  solemn, the children she had hugged and helped, said good-bye to Miz Esther.

Have a volunteer experience to share?
Please leave a response below.

Summary of Comments on “Building My Brain with Books”
How happy I am to know that my blog friends feel as passionately about reading as I do, have shared many of the same experiences, and treasure several of the same books. Their comments are too detailed and interesting to do justice to in a summary. Please give yourself a treat and return to the post to read what Lori, Jeannie, Becca, Audrey, and Mercy had to say.

 

Do Some Good: An Uneven Journey

The notion that we should help those in need didn’t come to me easily; though my mother tried.

“Janet, you know Mr. Gull is in the hospital and Mrs. Gull has three young children, right? Can you think of any way you could help her?”

“I don’t know; maybe send a get well card?”

“Or maybe call and offer to babysit free of charge while she visits her husband? Maybe you should go call her. Now. It would be a big help to her and a kind thing to do.”

Closing The Witch of Blackbird Pond and donning my martyr mask, I slouched toward the phone.

On my own after college, I slid into total self-interest. Busy establishing myself in a career and new marriage, I thought I had no helping hands to lend; so I donated canned goods to food drives, gave at the office, purchased whatever children were selling, and felt virtuous.

Several years after my first marriage ended, I married a man who made community involvement a way of life and was surprised that I didn’t. Because Joel worked longer hours than I and still found time to volunteer, my “I’m too busy” argument sound silly.

dental careI heard about a non-profit organization that provided dental care to children based on their parents’ ability to pay. As a teacher, I’d known children who had difficulty learning because their teeth hurt, so I joined the board of the Northwest Colorado Dental Coalition and was soon able to speak intelligently about operatories, fluoride treatments, and the cost of x-ray machines.

Best of all, I liked knowing that after a visit to the clinic, children in the town I call home fell asleep without toothaches.

I discovered that serving others in any capacity — volunteer coach, hospital pink lady, reading buddy — widens your social circles, enriches your life, strengthens your community…and makes you feel good.

Have some thoughts
about serving others?
I’d be interested.

Recap of Comments on Aunt Beulah’s Recommendations

Dawna said Aunt Beulah’s recommendations hit home with her because she has had similar thoughts. She also felt Aunt Beulah’s ideas will help her stay focused on aging well. This response tells me that Dawna is way ahead of where I was at her age. I’ve no doubt she will age gracefully.

Mary offered the following thought about developing your talents and skills without worrying about how others may judge your efforts: “Thank you for reminding me to just take joy in the project and let the future take care of itself.” What a wonderful thought; one I agree with, but sometimes struggle to maintain.