The first thing that popped into my head was the coffee shop owner who paid for my latte when I came into his cafe, dripping wet and counting change onto the counter. I was dripping wet because I'd walked into town in the January rain without a raincoat. I was counting change because all I'd brought into town was a pocketful of change, since my errand was to get the local newspapers to look for my mom's obituary. He didn't know I was recently and deeply bereaved; he just knew I was damp, in need of caffeine, and flustered to be short on cash. Many people were kind to me during that brutal winter; his act sticks with me because he didn't know how desperately I needed kindness right then, but he was kind anyway.
This reminds me of a more light-hearted kindness-of-strangers story. In 1992, one of my best friends and I were volunteer English teachers in newly independent Latvia. It was literally months after the Soviet Union had disbanded; Soviet troops were still in place and Soviet culture permeated society. It was explained to us that the public surliness of the people was a result of state intrusion into every aspect of life--your personal boundary extended only as far as your own skin, so people guarded that boundary with scowls and gruffness. We were both placed in small villages where we were able to make some great friends, but the first month was slow going. Eager for company and conversation, we both made a weekend trip to the capital city so we could spend some time together.
Before she left home, Carla had been given the name and address of a young Latvian woman whose great-aunt she had met briefly in St. Louis. The address was on a major street in Riga. We tromped along one wintery day in search of the girl's apartment. We'd walked about a mile, and were getting very close to the right address, when we came upon a fenced in construction site. We were about to pass it by when Carla noticed there was a sort of large window cut into the fence, and someone was calmly climbing through it. "I wonder if the apartment is back there!" she said, so we peeked through. Yep, beyond the bumpy frozen mud of the fenced in lot was a five story apartment building, number 103, just like on the index card clutched between Carla's gloved fingers. So we looked around, chuckled, and climbed through the fence.
After skirting the empty lot (nothing was ever built there; eventually the fence came down and grass grew back over the lumpy dirt), we discovered that the apartment building had two doors, both of which were locked. We approached a woman who was leaving through one doorway and showed her the address. She was startled to realize we spoke neither Russian nor Latvian, but indicated that the apartment we were seeking was behind the other set of doors. She trudged across the snow with us and rang the bell. No response. We started to shrug and thank her, but she wasn't about to desert the helpless foreigners just yet. She scooped up a snowball and chucked it at one of the 2nd story windows. No response. She tried again. This time someone came to the window and groused down at her. She called out an explanation of our situation, and the person buzzed us in to the building. We scrambled in, trying to thank her before the doors locked again. She smiled, waved, and clambered through the fence to the street beyond. We walked up the stairs and knocked on the door of someone who would become a life long friend to both of us. We never saw her neighbor again, but we spoke of her kindness often.
|The pretty, renovated part of Riga. Image from Riga.inbaltics.com|
|But Riga of 1992 looked more like this (just imagine it with snow and frozen mud). Image from Rigabiketours.com)|
These stories are far from each other in time and space One memory makes me chuckle; one makes me want to weep. Still, they prove the same point. When life yanks the rug out from under you--no more mom, no common language, no whatever it is you didn't realize you counted on until it was suddenly gone--that is when a simple act of kindness becomes an unforgettable gift. It is so hard to write about without sounding unbelievably corny, but there it is, so yes, pay it forward.