24 October, 2012

A Cup of Kindness

My dry cleaner retired.

I walked in last week, and felt like someone was "gaslighting" me, because instead of the usual cheerful couple behind the counter, there was an entirely different cheerful couple that is about the same age. And yet there they were doing the same things that My Dry Cleaner and his wife used to do; she working elegantly at the sewing machine, and the gentleman leaping from behind the racks and hangers to greet me and take my dirty things.

I stood agape. Like I was in a bad sitcom, I actually shook my head in disbelief.  Then I tried not to cry as the new proprietor told me again that the previous owners had retired. They were gone. And they had been gone for several weeks, which I believed, because I turned in enough shirts that I clearly had not been there since last month.

I paid for my cleaning, and picked up my slip for the clothes I left behind. They have a new machine that just spits out a receipt after he types in how many items I have. No more asking for my phone number, no more handwritten notes on the flimsy little triplicate pages-which I always lost before I could use them to get my clothes out of hock.

Back in my car, I  laid my head on the steering wheel and unraveled. I cried such big tears that I heaved and got that little shudder the way crying children do when they feel lost, and alone. And maybe that's because that's how I felt, lost and alone.

I had no idea that my simple exchanges with my dry cleaner were so woven into my life. He and his wife had become a touchstone, a grounding point. He always asked how my children were doing, and called my Jenny, when no one else does. He asked about our travel plans for holidays, and remembered where we had been. He bought me coffee once, on a day when the world seemed impossibly sad. He asked about my marriage, my family. He provided counsel and humor, and kindness.

He is a good man, and I will miss having him on my team.

We never know who our allies will be, who will be the people we can count on to listen, or care, or pitch in. One would think that those people who were your friends in college, or maybe the exuberant couples who stood with you at your wedding, maybe they would be be your closest, and most relied upon friends. But some of those relationships fade, or are pulled apart by distance. Even family can't be there at every turn.

And so some friendships come when we don't expect them, people step in as sort of heroes in their own way. A motherly neighbor might be the one who comes to sit on your couch in the middle of the night to watch over of your special needs kid, while you head to the hospital to deliver your second child. It's possible that the wonderful waitress at the corner burger joint, will offer to hold that brand new baby as you struggle into the small bathroom with your other child, the one who has developed a severe sensory aversion to public restrooms and all of their echoiness. And you will accept her help with a dawning revelation that you will never again have enough hands to manage the task of parenting your children alone.

In your weariness you may encounter a small oasis. The woman at the Mediterranean cafe will recognize your tired voice when you call to place an order, and when she sees you pull in to the full parking lot she'll step out the door and bring your food to your window. She'll peer in sweetly at your precious children, and you will thank God that this woman understood how long it would take, and how hard it would be, to safely get your children in and out of the car on that busy street. She will put in an extra piece of baklava for you.

Your dry cleaner will buy you coffee.

If I am lucky, I will continue to find these people as we venture on, and they will fill in, mending the holes in the fabric that make up our life. I will rely on them without knowing it at the time.

I can only hope that I have been gracious enough, thankful enough in the moment, that they do not regret their kindnesses, because I will always be grateful.

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