It was 8:15. As usual on Mondays, I was running late for work. In spite of this, I stopped at a neighborhood store to get some juice and snacks for work. Usually, when I was running late, I would not make stops, but I felt compelled to visit that store that particular morning. Ironically, this detour proved to be a necessary one over which I had no control.
After parking and heading towards the entrance, I noticed an elderly couple standing outside the door who seemed oddly out-of-place at this time of the morning. They were just standing there by themselves. I got the impression that both were waiting for something or someone.
The old man appeared to be in his mid-80’s. He parted the long strands of his thinning white hair on the left side of his head and combed them neatly to the right. Irregular brown age spots dotted the heavily wrinkled skin on his face. His unusually large ears hung like faded pink saucers on the sides of his head. Coke-bottle-thick glasses magnified his obviously weak eyes to the size of quarters. With his right hanging limply at his side, he used his left hand, which trembled from some ailment, to grip his weary worn, scratched wooden cane with such an intensity that emphasized the bones and blue vein lines through his thin pale skin.
He wore a shabby, two-piece brown suit, which seemed not to have aged well. The coat hung loosely on his stooped-over, bony frame made him look like a young lad 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 appearance. Brown shoes in need of a good polish completed his outfit. Though the morning’s heat was bearable so far, this old man’s attire did not fit in with the expected temperature rise. I knew he would be sweating by nine.
Truthfully, this old gentleman reminded me of my grandfather, Charles Benjamin Metz, who we respectfully called Papa. This old man resembled Papa in only one respect: age. In contrast, ‘Papa’ as we fondly called him, paid particular attention to himself and his clothes. Always. Standing at 6’3,” Papa dressed to the nines well into his 70’s. On Sundays when he got ready for church, he emitted a light bouquet of favorite cologne, Old Spice. Like a soldier in a formation, he stood ramrod straight in his outfit of a starched white shirt with a stiff boned collar. His perfectly fitting suit bore a neatly folded white handkerchief, which peeked out of his suit’s left lapel pocket. Highly shined wing-tipped shoes and a jaunty fedora completed his meticulous ensemble. I was proud that the old man who I saw that morning had awakened my precious memories of Papa.
The old woman bore a full head of white hair, which was thick 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 covered with deep wrinkles. Her dress consisted of a light-blue background awash in tiny delicate white daisies. Bulky tan support hose encased her meaty legs as she leaned for dear life on a sturdy white wooden cane to help her keep her balance. A tan purse, which she gripped vise-like 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, sometimes with a delicate veil which hung halfway down her face. Mama was the epitome of elegance and style.
Smiling to myself at reflected on Mama and Papa, I entered the store and did not give the old people a second thought as wonderful memories of my grandparents and their meticulous fashion sense lingered with me.
As I was leaving the store, the old woman invaded my peripheral vision to my left and hobbled in my direction. She stuck out her cane to stop 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 walked 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 others had visited the store and left before me. But for some reason, she waited and stopped me on my way out of the store. Noticing the confused look on my face and my shoulder shrug which indicated my incomprehension of what she had said to me, she 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 and into the front passenger seat. I waited as she found and fumbled with the seat belt to safely strap herself in. As I drove off, she started speaking to me as if I understood her German perfectly. I didn’t, but I gave her no further sign of my shortcoming. The most I could make out initially was that she wanted to go to the ‘sparkasse,’ the 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. Besides, I tend to work late into the evening 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 managed to get through conversations with some understanding. But this usual query of mine would be of no use since I just 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 bits and pieces 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 by touching her life in some special way. That much I understood perfectly. While keeping a careful eye on the road, I glanced briefly at the little old lady who smiled and gestured with one frail hand for emphasis as she continued to share her memories of this special friend of hers from Belize. I nodded and smiled also to acknowledge my interest in her sharing this information with me.
Arriving at the street for the Sparkasse, I drove around the corner and stopped in front to let 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 for me to stay put meaning that she could get out on her own. After unbuckling the seat belt, she opened the car door. Straining a bit but taking her time, she positioned her cane securely on the ground 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 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 politely declined but her generosity touched me for something I wanted to do, which had not cost me a cent. Smiling, she bid me goodbye with, “Auf wiedersehen” (Goodbye) before gently closing my car door.
I waited as she slowly mounted the first step with a slight difficulty. She stopped on the first step, turned 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 waved back and finally drove off.
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 front 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 step into that little old woman’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 as we journey through this life. I also believe that we all face the option to commit that ‘random act of kindness.’ Undeniably, I smiled as I felt guilty as charged for the rest of the day.