The Kindness of Strangers

I believe the world is full of kind people. Here are four of my own memories of particularly kind people I had never met before, but who helped me nonetheless.

1. The German Dog Walker. Years ago my brother and I travelled to a small town in Germany. We managed to figure out the train from the airport to the small town, but we struggled with directions to the inn where we would be staying. This was the age before smartphones, so all we had was a written address and a map. We saw a tall, middle-aged, lanky lady walking a tall, lanky Irish Wolfhound-looking dog. We asked her if she knew how to get to the inn. She hardly spoke any English (and there was hardly any English around in general), but she motioned for us to follow her. So, dragging our suitcases behind us after a very long day of travelling, we started walking. I remember that every so often the dog would turn around and look at us, perhaps to see if we were still there and/or to keep encouraging us to follow. Well, we walked and we walked…until we arrived at the inn! The lady and the dog had walked us all the way there. To this day I wonder how much they both had to veer off their walking route in order to help us out.

2. The Museum Ladies. I was so excited to see Gunther von Hagen’s “Body Worlds” exhibit, where actual human bodies are preserved using the process of plastination. I remember there was a section of the exhibit where just the capillaries remained of animals and various body parts: they looked like 3-D objects made out of intricate, bright red webs. There was a chicken–just its capillaries remaining–and as I studied it my vision began to shrink toward a point, with darkness around the edges. I started to feel a little woozy. Next thing I knew the right side of my face felt pressed up against something, and I could hear a female voice asking me over and over, “Can you talk? Can you talk?” I opened my eyes and realized I had passed out in the middle of the museum! Two middle-aged ladies were crouched beside me, coaxing me awake. They summoned a museum staff member. I ended up being completely fine, and I still wonder why I fainted. I’m not good with blood, so maybe seeing all those capillaries was somehow subconsciously overwhelming? In any event, I’m grateful to those ladies for making sure I was okay.

3. The Coffee Man. One day I was at a coffee shop and before I could place my order, an older gentleman stepped up beside me and said, “I’m not coming on to you or anything, but can I please buy your coffee? Someone did that for me recently and I’d like to…what do they call it? Pay it forward?” I said yes and told the man that he totally made my day. And I’ve since paid it forward, too.

4. The Restaurant Couple. My husband and I were at a Greek restaurant one evening on a date, and we were just finishing up our main course when our waitress said, “You don’t have to worry about your bill. Another couple has taken care of it.” We were shocked. Complete strangers volunteered to pay for our entire dinner?! The waitress said the couple wanted to remain anonymous but we looked around, trying to decipher which couple it might have been. We never found out.

Some months later my husband and I were on another dinner date when we noticed a group of three young people at a table nearby sharing a number of appetizers. My husband looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and asked me in a hushed voice, “Should we pay for their bill?” I didn’t hesitate, remembering that anonymous couple in the Greek restaurant. “Yes!” I whispered back. The more I snuck glances at them, the more I realized they looked like students, who would probably be extra appreciative. So my husband asked our waiter to put their order on our bill, but to please keep us anonymous. The reaction from that group of young folks when the waiter told them they didn’t have to pay their bill was priceless: their mouths gaped open and they kept voicing their surprise. They all left the restaurant with huge smiles on their faces. And my husband and I did, too.

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The Little Black Kitten

When I was 12 years old my family and I lived in an old house with a carport. We had a medium-sized, roly-poly, fluffy black dog named Rascal. One spring day Rascal started whimpering at the screen door that led outside near the carport. Rascal rarely whimpered. “What is it?” I asked him. Then in between his whines I heard it.

“Meow! Meow!”

I peered through the screen door and saw, peeking up from the steps to the carport, a little black kitten face.

My heart leapt. I loved cats! Although we never had a cat of our own, I always wanted one.

I opened the screen door a crack and slid outside, blocking Rascal from charging through the door toward the poor kitten. “Hi there!” I said to the kitten in my gentlest, most sing-songy voice.

“Meow! Meow!”

The kitten trotted right up to me. I was a goner. She (he?) was the cutest little thing. Not having had much experience with cats I was a little afraid of her claws, but I pet her hesitantly and that seemed more than enough for her. She purred and leaned all her weight into the movement of my hand. She was so soft! I could hear Rascal having a conniption fit on the other side of the screen door.

I played with the kitten and talked to the kitten until it was dinner time. By then everyone in my family knew there was a kitten outside, but the intensity of my dad’s hatred of cats was such that I didn’t even bother to ask if I could bring her inside.

The next morning when we let Rascal outside to do his business, there was the little black kitten, trotting along behind him. Rascal seemed to tolerate her.

Then I remember doing my homework up in my bedroom, my mom sitting beside me, helping me. Dad wasn’t home. We heard my brother’s voice behind us say, “Look what I have!” My mom and I turned around and there was my brother, slowly walking up the stairs with the little black kitten in his arms. He was scratching the kitten’s chin. The kitten looked as if it was in heaven.

My mom scolded, “What are you doing? The kitten is going to want inside all the time now!”

Secretly I cheered my brother.

“We can’t keep it,” my mom said gruffly. But I knew through her rough exterior she thought the kitten was to-die-for cute, too.

The next day my mom made a make-shift crate and brought the kitten to the Humane Society. I tried not to think about it.

It’s almost 30 years later and I still think about that kitten. Of course she’s long gone by now. But what would we have named her? Probably something typical like Shadow or Magic or Midnight. Would she have slept on my bed? Would my dad have warmed up to her?

I hope that Shadow/Magic/Midnight ended up in a good home and had a good life.

Telephone Horror

When I was a kid growing up in the ’80s, we had a shiny, black rotary-dial phone that sat on a small table in the dining room. In the circle in the centre of the dial, underneath a plastic covering, was a small piece of paper upon which my dad had used the typewriter to type out our home phone number. (I think I still remember it: 728-0917. Back then you didn’t need to dial the three-digit area code before your number.)

One day my dad suggested that I call my grandparents. So I picked up the receiver, put it to my ear, and started dialling their number. I knew it by heart (although I can’t remember it now!). Anyway, my grandpa answered the phone. “Hello?” I heard his gentle voice say.

“Hi, Grandpa! It’s Dana.”

“Oh! Hello, pet!” (My grandparents always called my brother and I “pet.”) “Hang on while I call for Grandma.”

I could hear a shuffling sound as he put his hand over the mouthpiece of the phone to shield my ears from him calling, “Dee-Dee! It’s Dana!”

Then I started to feel a slight tickle on my bottom lip. I stuck out the tip of my tongue to lick it away.

My Grandma came on the line and we said our greetings. I started to feel the tickly feeling on my lip again. When I stuck out my tongue this time, I felt something that was not my lip.

I held the phone out from my face. There, coming out of one of the holes in the mouthpiece of the phone, was a big, fat, juicy earwig.

I held the phone out, terrified. I could hear the little voices of my grandparents chattering away, oblivious to my horror. I watched as the enormous earwig emerged farther and farther out of the hole.

I remember picking up the whole phone and running, speechless with terror, toward my dad, who was in the kitchen. He took a Kleenex and smushed the earwig. Then he took the phone and explained to my grandparents why I had been so silent.

I stood there reeling over the fact that an earwig touched my lip! I touched an earwig with my tongue! An earwig CAME OUT OF THE PHONE!

After my dad hung up, he unscrewed the mouthpiece and then basically took the whole phone apart. There was no evidence whatsoever that an earwig had been in there. And most importantly, that was the only earwig that had been in there.

So when I see old, black, rotary phones, they remind me of earwigs.

The woman who gave away her coat

I used to volunteer as a Friendly Visitor for the elderly. I was matched with a lady named Jesse and I was to visit her for a couple of hours each week. Jesse lived with her son’s family and they were concerned that she would feel lonely with their busy work schedules. So they signed her up for the Friendly Visitor program. I remember I visited her every Thursday afternoon.

Jesse was a delight. Her eyes had a sparkle that bespoke a sharp and intelligent mind. She was tiny with the typical older-lady short, silver, curly hair, and she was always well-coiffed when I saw her. When she laughed she threw her head back with a wide, open-mouthed, joyous cackle.

We often went out on excursions on our Thursday afternoons: walks around different parts of the city, Tim Horton’s for a tea and a donut, and even a pottery show. I remember one Tim Horton’s visit in particular when Jesse ordered a powdered jellied donut: she had a ring of icing sugar around her mouth and a dusting of icing sugar on her chin. She took slow but huge bites, and, well, I’ve never seen anyone enjoy a donut so much.

One spring day I thought it would be a good idea to take Jesse for a walk in her wheelchair on a nearby trail in the woods. The wheels of her wheelchair became so stuck in the mud that I thought we’d have to spend the night out there. Jesse, always a good sport, just laughed her endearing cackly laugh. (We eventually became unstuck. Eventually.)

At one point I was going away on a trip and before I left, Jesse gave me a slim brown box wrapped in a green bow. “Here, this is for you for your trip,” she told me. “Open it when you are packing.” When I got home and opened the box, out fell two enormous pairs of…underwear. Travel underwear, apparently. They were so big, there was no way I could wear them. It’s still the most hilarious gift I’ve ever received.

Several years later, Jesse’s health began to fail. Near the end she was bedridden but I would visit her at home. Often she would fall asleep. She ended up in the hospital and each time I tried to visit her, either she was sleeping or she was being tended to and I had to come back later. Then I got a phone call from her daughter-in-law, telling me Jesse had passed away. I went to Jesse’s funeral, which was a small but intimate affair. I had known Jesse was a schoolteacher, and they had on display multitudes of letters from her students and photos from her teaching days. After reading the letters and seeing the pictures, it was obvious Jesse was a delight while she was a teacher, too.

Her 20-year-old grandson, Mark, gave the eulogy. He told a story about when he was 16 and out one night with friends, got into a fender-bender, and was terrified of how his father would react. Jesse was living with the family, and she was awake when Mark came home and he told her what had happened. Mark said Jesse stayed up all night so that she would be awake when Mark’s father woke up, so she could ensure that Mark didn’t get into too much trouble.

Then Mark told a story about when Jesse was a teacher. There was a small child in her class and Jesse knew the child’s family was very poor. On one particularly cold day, the child showed up at school without a coat. Jesse asked the child where his coat was and he said, “I don’t have one.” Even though Jesse was rather poor herself, she apparently gave the child her coat, no questions asked.

Jesse never told me about staying up all night for Mark, or about giving away her coat. Or about all the kind words her students said about her in their letters. And I know she was too humble to. I was surprised to hear about her generosity, but in hindsight, I was not surprised at all.

I still miss my Thursday afternoons with Jesse. I haven’t volunteered as a Friendly Visitor since Jesse’s passing, mostly because life has become quite busy with two children of my own. But also because I still feel a pang of sorrow that Jesse is gone.

Maybe I’ll treat myself to a powdered jelly donut.

My Emotional World, Decade by Decade

Here is another fantastic writing prompt from my husband. I’ll try to remember what kinds of things were going through my head, decade by decade…

Decade One: 10 Years Old

Context: When I was 10 years old I was in Grade 5, in Mr. Corey’s Grade 5/6 split class. Mr. Corey had our desks arranged in circles with a computer in the middle of each circle (Commodore 64s!). I remember one of my favourite projects in his class was to make a little book of short stories. We would type our stories into the computer, print them out with the dot-matrix printer, paste them onto glossy paper (we could choose the colour), and then design the cardboard cover. When we were done he had the covers laminated. I was also a book worm at that point, reading all kinds of different books and drooling whenever the Scholastic Book fair came to our school. I think this was around the time I was obsessed with horses and My Little Pony. I wanted to be a palaeontologist or a zoologist when I grew up.

Emotions: I remember being in my own little dream-world most of the time, when I wasn’t concentrating on school work or playing with my small group of friends. I would make up worlds which usually included winged horses or unicorns. From what I remember the worlds were usually forest-based and fairytale-like. I guess the word that comes to mind for this decade is whimsy or dreamy. I was a bit on the chubby side and was self-conscious about that. I was also receiving a weekly allowance and I remember saving up for specific toys. I would obsess about whatever toy it was but I noticed that the more time that passed, the more the obsession would wane. When I discovered something that I wanted to buy I would tell myself, “Wait a couple of days and see how you feel about it then.” Nine times out of ten I realized that it didn’t really matter that I didn’t have it.

Decade Two: 20 Years Old

Context: If my calculations are correct, I would have just started my undergraduate degree in university. At some point in high school I realized I didn’t want to dig up dinosaur bones any longer and the thought of being a zoologist, for some reason I can’t remember, fizzled. For my university major I originally chose to study biotechnology, since I was good at science in high school and I rather liked it. The funny thing was is that I didn’t have a super clear understanding of what biotechnology is–I knew it had something to do with biology, chemistry, and genetics, all subjects I had been good at. And I knew there was an applied aspect to it, too. (Looking back I obviously should have done more research!) Anyway, my university courses kicked my butt. I was so used to receiving grades in the range of 80-99% that I was terrified when I discovered I was barely passing. And I didn’t really like the science courses, either. I was freaking out. So I sat back and thought, “I like the sciences and the arts…how about psychology?” So I went for it. I changed my major and was much happier. But did I know what I wanted to do with my degree? Not really. Maybe a therapist?

Emotions: At this point in my life the world seemed overwhelming. So overwhelmed is a good word to describe this time in my life. Probably scared, anxious, nervous, and clueless, too! I would also say impatient, because I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking before making a decision–I just wanted to make the damn decision! I wanted a plan! The older me would have coached myself to take a breath, sit back, and consider things, including taking some time to think about who I am. Looking back I didn’t really know who I was when I was in my early 20s. All I knew was that I certainly wasn’t ready to face the world! I was a terrified little rabbit.

Decade Three: 30 Years Old

Context: I earned a Ph.D.! I was going to find a job in academia, as a professor! I would continue to study bumblebees and teach psychology courses. My career seemed all planned out, if only I could find a job…

Emotions: I was certainly feeling more self-confident, proud of my accomplishments, and a bit anxious (in a good way) for the future. I was optimistic that I would land the perfect academic career.

Decade Four: 40 Years Old

Context: Well, the academic job never materialized. After 4656734 rejection letters and a contract professor position that taught me that academia wasn’t for me, I was going contract-to-contract with university research jobs. It was certainly NOT the path I expected! And I had to do a lot of soul-searching in order to be okay with that. Through that process of self-reflection I realized that writing is my true passion, and that my goal is to one day have my own book on the shelf. So I started to take writing seriously. I go to writing conferences and classes and workshops whenever I can. I’ve been published in several children’s magazines and I have an agent (hooray!). I now have my own family: a husband, two children, and a dog.

Emotions: I have to say I’m much more at peace. My husband, kids, friends, and yes, even my dog, have taught me to keep perspective. To slow my mind down. To see the world and my situation, whatever it may be, more broadly and in context. I’ve learned that there’s much, much more to life than a career. I’m much more self-aware, in tune with my feelings (especially my gut feelings), and comfortable with myself and the path that I am on. I still lose perspective sometimes, and I still feel anxious now and then, but I try to be a friend to myself. Rather than try to shove aside my feelings and truck on, I try to ask myself, How would a friend react to my thoughts? It’s tough and I’m still learning, but I find if I take the mental energy to shift in that direction, the outcome is a much more calm and peaceful state. I’m also learning to let go of other people’s expectations. That is a big one. But I’m getting there.

Decade Five: 50 Years Old

Context: …to be continued…

Emotions: …to be continued…

A Christmas Tradition: A Teddy Bear Finds Christmas

Every year since I was little we put up a special calendar on the first of December. It was a calendar my grandmother made.

It is the story of a little bear who couldn’t wait for Christmas so he decided to look for it. Each day in December he looks in a different spot, indicated in the calendar at the bottom. My grandmother sewed a button on every spot where the bear looks.

This little bear is pretty thorough in his search!

Anyway, today is Christmas Eve and–SPOILER ALERT!–he finally found Christmas: in the living room with all of his family.

This year my son was very diligent about moving the bear to his particular spot on the calendar each day. And it was heartwarming to hear him read the little calendar at the bottom all by himself.

As I sit and look at the calendar with a belly full of special chocolate-chip-banana-pancakes-for-breakfast, I sigh as I think that we (and the bear) made it to another Christmas Eve. All the rush and the planning and now it is simply beautiful anticipation in the air.

Merry Christmas to all! And to all a beary good night.

My favourite Christmas ornament

There is a 7-year-old and a 4-year-old in our home, so needless to say our Christmas tree was assembled quite early this year.

My son and daughter’s eager little fingers plucked ornaments out of the box one after another. Then I spotted it.

“Wait!” I cried.

The kids froze with wide eyes. I slowly took out the little ornament that was squished between a drummer boy and a rather dilapidated angel. It was a tiny Santa made out of wood, felt, and cotton. There was a hardened glob of glue on his hat where the white pom-pom used to be. A face made out of green marker with uneven eyes and a lopsided smile.

It was my all-time favourite Christmas ornament!

I made that ornament when I was in kindergarten. Ms. Loveland’s class. The little Santa was for sale at the school Christmas bazaar that year and my mom and I made sure we bought the right one out of the herd of similar little wooden-felt-hatted-cotton-ball-bearded kin.

That ornament went on our tree every year.

“Why do you like that Santa so much, Momma?”

Hmmm. I could explain to my daughter that the little Santa symbolizes such an innocent time in my life, that it brings back all kinds of memories of Christmases and grandparents and the saintly Ms. Loveland. But I know what answer will suffice in widening their eyes once again.

“I made it,” I told my daughter, “when I was your age.”

Sure enough, I could almost see the gears turning in her head. She was trying to imagine how this Mommy in front of her could have ever been 4 years old.

So welcome to our tree this year, little Santa. When Christmas wraps up I think I’ll keep you in a more special place, instead of tossed in the box with that drummer boy and dishevelled angel.

The magic of paper crowns

“I’m bored,” I said.

My mom looked at me for a few heartbeats then turned and grabbed the scissors off the counter. Then she rummaged through a pile of stuff in the Art Corner and pulled out some pieces of paper.

Snip, snip, snip…

Then the squeak of a permanent black marker.

Finally, some Scotch tape.

“Voila,” said my mom, “crowns for everyone!”

She tied a blanket around my shoulders for a regal robe. We placed the crowns on each and every one: Ernie, Bert, and Kermit. Now I was suddenly in a magical kingdom.

I ran and sat on my throne. I placed my Royal Subjects around me. Dad, my Royal Photographer, took a picture. 

Now I was ready to rule…

My blue blanket

Some of my earliest memories are of a blue blanket. It was soft enough, but it had a slight woolly scratchiness to it. The colour reminded me of skies.

I remember taking that blanket with me everywhere. It was especially essential at nap time. I couldn’t fall asleep properly unless I wrapped my index finger in one of the corners of the blanket, then rubbed my wrapped finger against the side of my nose while I sucked my thumb.

My blanket didn’t have a name. And for someone who liked pink so much (as seen by the pink from head-to-toe in the photo), I wonder why the blue blanket? 

The blanket played many roles. At one point I tried to make a hammock out of it for my dolls by stretching it between the knobs on a coffee table. There was a r-r-r-rip! I was mortified at the thought of almost destroying my blanket friend.

Eventually Blue Blanket suffered from holes and spots so worn, it was like cheesecloth. Blue Rag was more like it. Tattered, pilly, and well-loved. 

I’m unsure of Blue Blanket’s fate. Probably thrown out when I was “too old” for a blankie.

These memories were unearthed from the photo; when I think of it, I have yet to run across a blanket similar in colour and texture.

A one-of-a-kind, I guess! 

Stoves and Christmas Joy

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This is a picture of me, on the left, when I was three years old. On the right is my brother, who would be a little over one.

I look pretty darned happy. We got a homemade, wooden stove for Christmas that year. I can’t remember if I had asked Santa for one or if it came as a complete surprise. In any event, looks as though it didn’t matter!

I do remember that stove, though. The knobs could turn ’round and ’round, and there was a clock in the centre where you could move the hands to change the time. The oven door opened up to what to me was an enormous cooking space.

I remember playing with it a lot.

I remember it smelled of fresh paint and the surface had a slight striped texture from the bristles of a paint brush. Someone made this stove by hand. At some level, even at three years old, I understood this and it made the gift all the more special and exciting. It was a one-of-a-kind. My stove. (Well, my brother’s too, I guess, if I was in the mood to share.)

I wonder what my own kids will remember of their own Christmases past?

The only hand-made Christmas gift my kids have received so far are scarves I knitted. My son saw me knitting a scarf one day and asked if I could knit him one, too. So there is one under the tree for him. And there’s one for my daughter…if I can finish it tonight!

A scarf is not as exciting as a toy stove, I can admit. Maybe they’ll remember visiting the fire station to drop off toys–which has become a yearly tradition–and getting to sit in the fire trucks if the firemen weren’t busy. I’d bank on my kids remembering at least something about that.

In any event, may your holiday season be filled with warm memories!

Now I’d better get knitting…