Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving Giving

I popped into Michael’s (craft store) yesterday to pick up some picture frames for some of my boys’ artwork. I love to display the boys’ art, but I don’t frame it often. So when I do, they know I truly love the piece they created, and they walk a little taller.  Because the public school system and the framing industry apparently haven’t (yet) sat around a conference table together, I wandered the aisles for half an hour, trying to figure out how to get the boys’ 5.5x7” and 8.5x14” artwork (typical sizes for school projects) to fit in standard size frames. Ultimately, I found myself at the framing counter so I could have a mat cut for the larger piece.

There was an older couple in front of me. On the counter, they had carefully laid out his jacket, his hat, and a handful of medals from his time in the army during the Korean War. I watched as they chose a shadow frame and mats and a plaque. And as I did, my heart started beating faster, tears welled in my eyes, and I started feeling a little twitchy.

Twitchy is how I describe that feeling that means I’m supposed to DO SOMETHING. I tried to convince myself that this was neither the time nor the place to do something, but the twitchiness wouldn’t stop. In that moment, I was overcome with the notion that, try as I might to be extravagantly kind and generous, there was nothing I could do that was as extravagant as putting one’s life on the line for countries’ worth of people one has never met, but that, be that as it may, I couldn’t use that truth as an excuse to do nothing. So when the sales associate told the couple how much the work would cost, I leaned into them and managed to squeak through tears, “Excuse me.” They looked my way. “But would you do me the honor of letting me pay for this.”

They were momentarily speechless. “Oh, no. No, we couldn’t. It’s just too much,” they said.

“Please, I would very much like to,” I said as I handed my credit card to the wide-eyed associate.

“I couldn’t let you. I wouldn’t feel comfortable,” the husband said, never lifting his head.

And so I finally decided to take my card back. Because the point of being kind and generous is never to make the other person feel uncomfortable.

I wiped my tears, as the couple and the sales associate began to finalize the transaction, but the weight of what had just happened hung awkwardly in the air between us. I stepped out of the space to the end of the counter and busied myself pretending to look at mats, hands still trembling. After a minute, the wife followed me, and said, “Thank you,” reaching up for a hug. We clung to each other, as she quietly said, “You made my day. No. You made my year.” She released her embrace, still holding my arms, and looked me in the eyes and said, “You are a good woman.” I was speechless.

When I walked back to the front of the counter, the couple began sharing some of their story with me. The husband (a formal army corporal) had been “dropped” in Korea on Christmas Eve 1952 and served for a year and a half. Only a couple of months ago, he lost his brother, who had, also, served but after Korea, never seeing active combat. When he died, the couple took special notice of his army jacket and two flags, framed and displayed in his home. They went home and dragged the husband’s uniform and medals from the cedar chest, ready to turn them into a “museum piece” for their descendants.

The husband was a quiet man, bordering on gruff. I didn’t see him make eye contact with anyone in the fifteen minutes I was with him. But as he and his wife turned to leave, he stopped in front of me (maybe feeling a bit twitchy himself) and reached out to me, unsure whether a hug or a handshake was the most appropriate response. We hugged, as he simply said, “Thank you.” I thanked him for his service and for sharing some of his story with me and wished them a happy Thanksgiving. As they walked away, the wife, smiling, called out over her shoulder to the sales associate, “Take good care of her.”

Sometimes an act of kindness doesn’t turn out the way we planned it. Sometimes we are turned down. Sometimes our only gift is an offer of help. But it is precisely those moments that serve to remind us that acts of kindness are never best judged by the amount of money exchanged. Acts of kindness are about connecting to other people. And that cannot be measured.

The couple at Michael’s politely declined my offer to pay for the framing service, yet they were clearly moved at the gesture. I will never know what they took from our encounter – a chance to share their story, a heartfelt thank you, softened hearts, a needed connection – but I know they took something. The husband didn’t strike me as the type who often hugs strangers.

Thank you for your service, Corporal. Thank you for sharing part of your story with me. Thank you for the hug. And…

Happy Thanksgiving.

It seems fitting that one of the pieces of art I was framing was a bald eagle.
(Scratch art by Bubba, spring 2014)