It was 8:15. As usual on some Mondays, I was running late for work. In spite of this, I felt the need to stop at a neighborhood store on with my way to get some juice and snacks for work. In fact, this innocent detour resulted in an especially heartwarming memory for me.
After parking and heading towards the entrance, I noticed an elderly couple standing outside the door. It seemed odd to me that they were just standing there by themselves dressed as they were, especially at this time of the morning. Yet, I got the impression that both were waiting for something or someone.
The old man appeared to be in his mid-80’s. He wore a shabby looking, two-piece brown suit. The coat hung loosely on his stooped-over, bony frame, which made him look like a kid wearing his father’s old clothes. An off-white shirt frayed around the collar and a faded brown paisley print tie added a quaint touch of distinction to his sad but neat appearance. Well-worn brown shoes in need of a good polish completed his outfit. Though the morning’s heat was bearable so far, I doubted that this old man’s attire would be comfortable for him with the expected temperature rise. I knew he would be sweating at least by nine. On his head, he had long strands of thinning white hair, which he parted on the left side of his head. From that part, he combed one-half of his hair down to the left side of his head and the rest he combed neatly over the top of his head to the right side. Irregular brown age spots dotted the heavily wrinkled skin on his face. He had unusually large ears, which hung clumsily like pink saucers on each side of his head. His horn-rimmed glasses, thick as the bottom of Coke bottles, magnified his obviously weak eyes to the size of quarters. His right arm hung limply at his side. With his left hand, which trembled from some ailment, he gripped his worn, scratched wooden cane with such intensity that it emphasized his bony hands and blue vein lines poking through his thin pale skin.
Truthfully, this old gentleman reminded me of my grandfather, Charles Benjamin Metz, who the family respectfully and fondly called “Papa.” This old man resembled Papa in only one respect: age. In contrast, ‘Papa’ paid particular attention to himself and his clothes. Always. Standing regally at 6’3,” Papa dressed to the nines well into his 70’s. On Sundays when he got ready for church, he left a light bouquet of his favorite cologne in the air, Old Spice, whenever he walked by. Like a soldier in a formation, he stood ramrod straight in his natty outfit starting with a starched white shirt with a stiff boned collar. His perfectly fitting pin-striped suits always bore a neatly folded white handkerchief, which peeked out of his suit’s left lapel pocket. He never left the house without his gold cuff links and his gold tie clip. His fancy gold fob watch, which stayed hidden in his right front pant pocket, was attached to a gold chain connected to his belt loop. Highly shined wing-tipped leather shoes and a jaunty fedora completed his meticulous ensemble. I was proud to have seen that old man that morning, for he had awakened my precious memories of Papa’s meticulousness.
The old woman bore a full head of thick white hair with frizzy curls. She had more than her share of brown age spots too. Overly large glasses rimmed in thick white plastic hugged her face, which was also covered with deep wrinkles. Her light-blue dress consisted of a background awash in tiny delicate white daisies. Bulky tan support hose encased her meaty legs as she leaned heavily for dear life on a sturdy white wooden cane to help her keep her balance. A tan purse with straps, which she gripped like a vise under one arm, did not match any of the colors in her dress nor her off-white, thick-soled shoes. I thought of my Grandma Ida Metz who we lovingly called “Mama.” She never left the house unless everything she wore matched, to include her jewelry and an ever-present jaunty hat, which she wore askew over her thick wavy hair. Sometimes wearing a hat with a delicate veil which hung halfway down her face, Mama was the epitome of elegance and style in her day.
Smiling to myself as I reflected on Mama and Papa, I entered the store and did not give the old couple another thought as wonderful memories of my grandparents and their particular fashion sense lingered with me.
After paying for my items and as I was leaving the store, I noticed the old woman in my peripheral vision to my left. I turned to face her as she hobbled in my direction. She stuck out her cane in front me as she spoke to me in German. I became a bit annoyed, not so much that her interruption would extend my lateness, but because I did not have a solid enough grasp of the German language so that I could understand what she wanted from me. I could have easily feigned ignorance and walk away, but I thought, ‘one day, this could be me asking a stranger for help.’ I felt that she needed something from me. To this day, I am not sure why she stopped me.
I was sure that other shoppers had visited the store and had left before me. But for some reason, she waited and stopped me at that particular moment on my way out of the store. Noticing the confused look on my face, I gave her a shoulder shrug, which indicated my incomprehension of what she had said to me. But she pressed on and pointed to my car with her cane. That is when I understood that she needed a ride.
After she turned and spoke briefly to the old man to bid him goodbye, I helped her over to my car, opened the front passenger door, and helped her into the seat. I waited as she found and fumbled with the seat belt to safely strap herself in. After I got in my car and started to drive away, she started speaking to me again in German as if I would understand her perfectly. I didn’t, but other than that shoulder shrug I gave her earlier, I revealed no further sign of my language shortcoming. The most I could make out initially was that she wanted to go to the ‘Sparkasse,’ the German name for local credit unions.
The Hochspeyer Sparkasse was a short distance in the opposite direction from where I worked, but being late is being late and I thought a few more minutes would not make a big difference, especially when it came to helping out this elderly lady. Besides, I tend to work late into the afternoons to make up my time of being late.
Whenever I experience difficulty trying to converse in German, I always break out my ‘save-face’ question, “Sprechen Sie ein bisschen Englisch?” (Do you speak a little English?) This question normally encouraged most Germans I have met to use some English no matter the level of their ability. Coupled with my passable ability to speak some German, I manage to get through conversations with a good level of understanding. But I hesitated to use this usual opening query of mine because it would be of no use. I knew that this little old lady spoke absolutely no English.
As she continued talking to me like an old friend, I forced myself to listen intently and managed to pick up and understand some of what she was saying to me. In a delicate, scratchy voice filled with fondness, she spoke of “eine Schwarze Dame aus Belize,” (A Black lady from Belize.) “Sie war sehr schoen und sehr, sehr nett,” (She was very beautiful and very, very nice.)
My own vanity led me to believe that she was comparing me to the beautiful, dark-skinned woman from Belize who left a lasting impression on her in some special way. That much I understood perfectly. While keeping a careful eye on the road, I glanced briefly at her as she smiled and gestured with one frail hand for emphasis while continuing to share her memories of this special friend of hers from Belize. I also nodded and smiled to let her know that I was interested in listening to her share this information with me.
Arriving at the street for the Sparkasse, I drove around the corner and stopped in front to drop her off. I started to unbuckle my seat belt to get out and help her out of my car, but she gently touched my arm, signaling for me to stay put, meaning that she could get out on her own. I remained impressed by her independence. After unbuckling the seat belt, she opened the car door. Straining a bit but taking her time, she positioned her cane securely on the curve to lift herself up to a standing position. I smiled and felt proud of her accomplishing that simple movement on her own in spite of her obvious frailty and accompanying age-related disabilities.
Once out of my car and standing firmly on the curb, she tucked her cane underneath one arm to free both hands to open her purse. In a kind gesture, she offered me a few Euros for what she thought was my trouble to get her to the Sparkasse. Naturally, I wouldn’t take any money from her for something that didn’t cost me anything. I politely declined but her generosity touched me for something I wanted to do, which had cost me only a few minutes of my time. Smiling, she bid me goodbye with, “Auf wiedersehen” (Goodbye) before she gently closed my car door.
I waited as she slowly mounted the first step with a little difficulty. She stopped on the first step, turned around and waved at me, which I took as my signal that she would be all right making it to the top of the stairs and into the Sparkasse. I smiled and waved back before finally driving away.
My thoughts then fell to the old man. I had to pass the same store to get to work. As I did, I looked over at the store’s entrance and noticed that he was gone. I hoped that someone had taken care of his needs, too, whatever they might have been.
I drove to work deep in thought about my chance encounter with the old woman. I imagined that should I live long enough to step into that little old lady’s shoes one day, I hope that someone will take the time to tend to my needs too. I believe that God puts angels in our paths to test our compassion on our journey through this life. I also believe that we all face the option to commit that ‘random act of kindness.’ Unashamed, I smiled feeling guilty as charged for the rest of the day.