On an excruciatingly hot, muggy St. Louis afternoon, the kind of heat that causes the sticky black tar on an asphalt driveway to bubble, I succumbed to my independence--temporarily.
It happened when I had to contend with a dead car battery in the parking lot of a day care center where I read weekly to underserved preschoolers. Although there to teach kids to love books, I was the one who learned the bigger lesson.
Since suddenly single seven years ago, my new mantra, “I can do it myself,” was in danger of dying just like the battery in my car did. I was stuck. Could I rely on me…only?
I believe that being on one’s own is a great test of who you are in the world. And in most respects, I concur. It’s empowering. I can eat what I want and when; do things I’d never done before like investing money and buying and selling a home; whip out a book and read when I feel like it; take a warm bath uninterrupted; listen to music that I love and not pretend to enjoy someone else’s choices; watch the old movies that I so enjoy on TV; try new activities and go new places without having to get approval. The list goes on and on.
That day, however, and under those circumstances, I had to rely on others. And by opening myself up to accepting help, I discovered how wonderful others can be.
First, I called AAA. Then I sat on a concrete ledge in the parking lot and waited while watching a parade of parents going in and out of the day care center picking up their kids.
Hum, I thought, I could turn this hot and annoying situation into a positive. It was a great opportunity for me to meet some of the parents. So, I started going up to the parents with their kids in tow and introducing myself. I held out my hand. “Hi, I’m Miss Margaret. How do you do? I read to your kids on Thursday afternoons.”
An hour and half later with sweat pouring down my back and my anger at waiting so long for AAA rising faster than the temperature, a man came up to me and said, “Can I do anything to help you? Are you okay?”
I explained. And then he took over. He ordered me to try to start the car while with my other hand I dialed AAA to ask why they hadn’t arrived. The man popped my hood to search for the problem.
“Put the car in neutral, and I’ll push you into a better parking spot so we can jump the battery,” he suggested.
“Don’t hurt yourself,” I cautioned.
“I’ll be fine,” he said. I followed his directive. He pushed the car as I steered it into a new space.
“Do you have jumper cables?” he asked.
“I think I do.” I opened the trunk and there they were. He drove his car over to mine, attached the cables and soon the car started.
“Thanks so much for doing this,” I said. And with that he waved and was on his way.
I cancelled AAA. I wasn’t terribly kind to the woman on the phone when I did so after waiting more than 90 minutes.
Early the next day, I called AAA again and asked them to send someone to come to the condo building where I live to put a new battery in my car. Later that afternoon, I was on the road when I got caught in a pelting rain and hail storm. I could not see where I was going. I got off the highway and, when there was a break in the storm, went into a grocery store to pick something up for dinner.
When I came out, the thunderstorms had revved up again. Not sure how I was going to make it to my car, I was literally touched by an angel—just like in the TV show. A thirtysomething young man came up to me, opened his umbrella and asked if he could walk me to my car. He waited until I was safely in the car. I shook his hand, introduced myself, and thanked him profusely. “And what’s your name?” I asked. “Angel,” he said. And then he slipped away.
The next day, I was in Target when a woman in line in front of me who had shrieking twin boys in her cart along with dozens of items, saw me struggling to carry my large packages of Kleenex and toilet paper. (I thought I didn’t need a basket.) She said, “Why don’t you get in front of me. Although you have your hands full, you only have two items.”
“Are you sure?” I said. “You have your hands full too.” The third random act of kindness.
After I got home and went upstairs, there was a knock at my door. I opened the door, looked down and saw a lovely plant with a card. It was from the caregiver of the woman next door who was thanking me for letting her use my extra parking spot in the garage.
Most likely I’ll never see again the man who helped me with my car, Angel with the umbrella who wanted to make sure I was safe and dry, or the woman who let me in front of her in line. Of course, from time to time, I’ll again see the caregiver in the hallway or garage.
There are days when, as an older woman, I feel I am invisible to many of those around me. How quickly my thinking has shifted. As Barbara Streisand sings in Funny Girl:
People who need people
Are the luckiest people in the world.”
Indeed, I am, and I hope I pay all these acts of kindness forward many times over.