In praise of the talkers

No one would ever describe me as outgoing. I’m a fade-into-the-background kind of person, more an interested observer than an eager participant. I no more strike up conversations with strangers than dye my hair purple.

But you know what? I really like people who are. Who do. That is, I’m always grateful when someone else is the outgoing one. I like to be friendly; I’m just not an initiator. I listen. Others talk.

Take yesterday for instance. Just a mundane trip to the auto shop to have the winter tires put on. I sort of dread going there, because they can be slow and the wait is long. Sometimes I bring my laptop, but there’s no Internet connection, so yesterday I brought a couple magazines to read instead.

Entering the waiting room at 9:00 a.m., I found that somebody was already there. That never happens and I had a moment’s annoyance of “Geez, is it going to take even longer?”

The woman eyed my magazines and greeted me with “Oh, I see you’re in for a wait, too.”

And then she proceeded to talk almost nonstop for the next 80 minutes. In that time, I learned more about her and her life than I know about acquaintances I’ve known for years…

  • Her 82-year-old father had just fallen in the basement the previous night and broken his hip. He wanted to stay on the basement floor overnight, and “just get up tomorrow,” but agreed to go to the hospital when her husband insisted. The ambulance took him to our local hospital, but then he was moved to Pittsburgh because he has heart issues and surgery would be risky. Interestingly, her mother and father have been married for 50-some years and have the same birthday. Her sister (2 years older) usually handles care issues for her parents, including taking her dad to doctor’s appointments and such. When she saw her parents’ number on the caller ID at 9:30 the night before, she knew something was wrong.
  • Her husband’s elderly and in-poor-health mother-in-law lives with them. They moved her up from Florida after her husband’s brother (also in Florida) wanted no parts of caring for her (but he’ll for sure be coming for his share of any inheritance). She’s not trained as a caregiver or anything, but she’s doing what she can. Her mother-in-law is quite a shopper and loves to spend money on junk she doesn’t need (they had to put a shed on their property to hold stuff and it’s already full). And she likes to go out to lunch whenever she can, “while she still can.” Sometimes she’s mean/ornery and says things that make my new friend cry, but then she feels bad and wants to buy her something to make up for it.
  • They live in a split-level house — they use the downstairs as their TV/family room, and her MIL has her space in the living room. It really helps to have separate space!
  • She and her husband have a boat and a small camp at Deep Creek, but they didn’t put the boat in this past year because friends have a bigger boat and they just went out on theirs instead.
  • It’s the second marriage for both of them and her husband’s son is the one who introduced them (she doesn’t like to say “stepson” — they’re all family, and they have a 6-year-old granddaughter — his daughter). She loves her husband to pieces. He buys her nice jewelry (revealed during the Kay commercial), but she almost never wears it because she’s afraid of losing it. He bought her the gold watch she had on.
  • Her son has schizophrenia, diagnosed while he was in college but she thinks it started senior year in high school. They at first thought he was on drugs. He had a very rough time for many years, and she campaigned hard for a long time to have his doctors give him shots. They’ve made a world of difference, and he is like a new person now, at age 30. I should tell anyone I know with similar problems how effective the shots are.
  • She ordered a DQ Blizzard pumpkin cake for Thanksgiving — something different. But she guesses they’ll be celebrating in the hospital with her dad.
  • Her husband’s hours at work are being cut back in January — they’re worried the place may even close. They had just met with an insurance salesman who was trying to sell them more insurance and get them to switch her husband’s retirement money around. They haven’t made any decisions yet, but the $3,000 he said they were entitled to (because her husband is a veteran) sounded pretty good.
  • They recently had to get a new furnace because something blew on the old one and they could easily have been poisoned with CO.

I didn’t get many words in edgewise, though I could empathize with her eldercare issues and such. I just listened, nodded a lot, and made encouraging comments now and then. After about an hour, we were joined by an older gentleman, and she quickly drew him into the conversation as well, commenting on his beautiful head of wavy white hair (it really was nice — he has to get it cut every 3 weeks). He shared similar stories of his sister, age 84, who was also a shopper and buyer of useless stuff — a hoarder of sorts.

At that point, my car was finished, and I got up to leave. I wished them both well, we exchanged “Happy Thanksgivings,” and I went on my way. I should have hugged her, but I’m not that kind of person.

I have no idea what her name was, where she lives, or anything that would enable me to find her if I was so inclined. It’s likely our paths will never cross again. Yet she made quite an impact on me — this nice, friendly, super-talkative woman, age 52. I murmured a little prayer for her and thought about chance encounters and whether they really are “chance.” Had she been a different sort of person — loud, opinionated, unpleasant — the whole experience could have been really annoying. But she wasn’t — and it wasn’t.

Instead, it was an interesting glimpse (well, more than a glimpse) into a stranger’s life. And it reminded me of something particularly appropriate on this, the eve of Thanksgiving…

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
~ Plato

Random kindness, lasting memory

A highlight of our trip was a visit to Grandfather Mountain — the highest point in the Blue Ridge. What makes it different is that it’s privately owned. After an incredibly circuitous trip to get there (we got off the Blue Ridge Parkway too early and had to travel the windiest road you ever saw for 10 miles or so), we swallowed hard before paying the $14 per person admission, spoiled by all the free state parks and roadside vistas we’d seen. But you soon realize why that fee is necessary. Someone had to pay for the twisty, turny roads to the top, the observation points, the facilities, including a really lovely nature museum highlighting North Carolina flora, fauna, animals, gems and a small nature preserve with otters, bears, eagles, and deer. The place is really well done, and I enjoyed it a lot.

The centerpiece is the “mile high swinging bridge” (elevation 5305′) — not as scary as I thought it would be, but not for the faint of heart either. The day was rainy — we found out later we’d missed a torrential downpour that morning — so the mountain top was shrouded in mist and clouds. Very little view to speak of; just glimpses when the mist would part briefly before drifting back. I understand you can see for miles and miles on clear days, but, oh well. We were actually walking in the clouds, which doesn’t happen all that often in life.

Since my ankle sprain, 4 months ago now, I’ve had to take it easy. It’s still not fully recovered, and I’m always afraid of turning it again. We hiked about ½-mile up a trail to reach the bridge (we could have driven), so I was already a little shaky. After you cross the swinging bridge, you’re on top of the world. Standing on solid granite, but not all that wide, wet with mist, and full of ruts, rocks, and edges just made for tumbling over.

You can walk out to the very tip — but there was no way I was doing that. I told Mike to go ahead, that I was going to stay right where I was. I was a little annoyed at a guy about my age just standing there, where people were trying to move past. So I stood just below him, trying to stay out of the way (and away from the edge).

He invited me to stand next to him, “There’s plenty of room.”

“No thanks, I’m fine here.”

He must have noticed my shakiness, saying “Well, just grab my arm if you need to.”

That was nice. “OK, thanks,” I said.

“You know,” he said. “It’s not bad to walk out there. It’s pretty flat and there’s plenty of room.”

“Oh, I’m fine here.”

“I’ll walk out with you if you want. You should do it.”

“Well, my husband just walked out there….(i.e., I’m married, if you’re trying to hit on me or something.)”

“I’ll walk you over to him. It’ll be fine. Just go first and I’ll be right behind.”

So we did. Me gingerly picking my way, and him talking quietly and calmly to me (to distract me, I later found out).

I said I couldn’t believe they let people just walk around out here — just steps from tumbling over the mountain, with no guard rails, no giant warning signs, no “WE ARE NOT LIABLE (for your stupidity)” messages. He chuckled and said, “You must be from up North too.” Turns out he was from New Jersey, and he commented that if this was up there, there’d be bubble gum and graffiti everywhere.

“Look at you!” he said at one point. “You’re doing it!” (That’s me in the red jacket, with him behind me. And yes, that’s a 3-year-old in the GAP sweatshirt in the foreground. But really, it was scary.)

In no time, I was standing next to Mike, saying “This nice man walked me out here.”

I thanked him. He said, “Oh you just needed a little conversation to distract you. It’s easier when it’s not your spouse talking you through it.” (Ha ha, no doubt he was married, or had been.)

He snapped a couple pictures of us with our camera, then disappeared, leaving us to sit awhile and enjoy the misty view and fall colors. I never asked his name, nor he mine. I lost track of him in the people coming and going.


And that was that. I wished I’d said more, told him he should be a counselor or talk people down from ledges or something, with his calm voice and pleasant demeanor. I was actually a little choked up when I thanked him, touched by his kindness, so I couldn’t say much. It’s not often you meet a stranger who just wants to do something nice for you.

A mere 5 or 10 minutes in both of our lives, but a random act of kindness I’ll always remember.

When I was young, I admired clever people. 
Now that I am old, I admire kind people. 
                        ~ Abraham Joshua Heschel

Kindness IS a virtue and all

~ Be kinder than necessary.
Everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.

I got one of those sweet, friend e-mails today that makes the rounds every now and then. I liked it and forwarded it on — it ended with the sentiment above.

As I ran my Wal-Mart errands today, I tried to keep that in mind, because I really believe it’s true. You never really know what’s going on under the surface of someone, and most people don’t wear their troubles on their sleeve. So, I thought about it and chastised myself for getting all exasperated and going around an older woman walking slowly and blocking the produce aisle with her cart — I should definitely know better than that, given my mom’s situation. I thought about it when a man in a scooter made a kinda rude remark (“Cut me off! Just like a woman.” followed by a hearty “ha ha”) It was the end of an aisle — just who cut off whom is in question. But hey, he was in a scooter so obviously had trouble walking. I thought about it when a youngish glam-type woman didn’t bother to hold the door for me (twice) when I ducked into Panera afterward for a coffee. (That time I thought a little snidely that her battle must be that the world didn’t revolve around her, even though it clearly should.)

I really will try to practice this idea though, even when it’s very hard. When people are rude or plain incompetent (been dealing with a bit of the latter the last few days) or just a little clueless. I’m sure I have my days when I’m unintentionally blocking an aisle or not noticing who is behind me at a doorway. I may not be able to stop some snide thoughts when others are clearly in the wrong, but I can surely cut them a break and hope people will do the same for me.