Janet Sheridan: The kindness of strangers
Clutching a purse, corrected student papers and a sack filled with jars for a math lesson on liquid measurement, I inched across the school’s frozen parking lot. Despite my caution, I slipped on a patch of ice hidden by a thin layer of snow, then thudded, bounced and sprawled. Before I could sit up or check for injuries, several teenage boys surrounded me.
“Are you hurt?” “Can you sit up?” “Should we get help?”
While I collected my dignity, they picked up my belongings, then helped me stand and walked me to my room. Placing the jars, purse and papers on my desk, they asked again if I was OK and departed, shrugging off my thanks.
I smile ruefully when I think about those boys and their kindness, because, driving by them minutes before my tumble, I’d written them off as raucous, inconsiderate junior-high jaywalkers.
Four years later, in 1968, I stood in an airport, tears dripping from my chin, as my husband walked away from me and toward Vietnam. Fighting for control, I watched as his plane taxied, took off into the peaceful autumn sky above Salt Lake City and disappeared. Alone and fighting sobs, I stood rooted, unable to walk back into a life without him. So I cried: husbandless, helpless, tissue-less.
First, a floral fragrance and then two arms surrounded me as a middle-aged woman approached, held me and murmured comforting words until my grief began to subside. Handing me tissues and rubbing my back, she said, “Oh, Honey, we have to go catch our plane. But I think you’re OK now to take the next step, don’t you? You’ll have to be. I know. We sent our son off six months ago.”
Another quick hug, then she rushed away with her waiting husband. And I took my first step into the void left by mine.
I think most of us have benefitted from strangers who took a risk, stepped forward, offered help. So my hesitation to offer kindness to others puzzles me. Sometimes I hang back, afraid of intruding or thinking I won’t know how to help. But when I overcome my shyness and offer assistance, I’m always glad I did.
Recently, Joel and I were able to help a mother trying to navigate a big city airport with six children under the age of 10. We both noticed the harried-looking woman and her brood — one, a babe in arms, and another, barely walking — camped on the floor near our gate, C-22, surrounded by carry-on luggage and the stares of strangers. We saw the dismay and weariness that flooded her when we heard the announcement, 10 minutes before departure time, that our boarding gate had been changed to D-20, the length of two concourses away.
My husband instantly started toward her, and I was at his side.
“Oh, please,” she said when we offered help and handed her toddler to Joel, who grabbed a stuffed backpack with his available hand. I took another bag and the hand of a 5-year-old and walked with the oldest, who carried her baby sister. Their mother, loaded with bits of luggage, shepherded the other two and cried quietly the entire way. I learned her tears were more than weariness when her oldest told me, “We’re flying to stay with grandpa because Daddy has a girlfriend.”
As we rushed, my heart heavy with sadness for the disrupted family, I was also flooded with thankfulness for the compassion of strangers, as other travelers stepped forward to relieve the youngsters of their burdens, walk ahead to clear a path, hold the hand of any child that faltered, put a comforting arm around their mother.
And I realized grace is to be found in both offering and accepting kindness.
Sheridan’s book, “A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns,” is available in Craig at Downtown Books and Steamboat Springs at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore. She also blogs at auntbeulah.com on the first and 15th of every month.