‘Can you help me?”
I looked up from my self-absorbed walk through the lobby to see a little lady standing by the brown, wooden table up against the wall near the doors of the post office. She had a piece of paper in her hand and there were two or three unopened letters on the table in front of her. Her pocketbook, worn black leather with a silver buckle, was tucked tightly under one arm. She had to be well into her 80s, most likely even older, with pale white hair and soft wrinkles that framed her eyes. I stopped.
“I forgot my glasses,” she said. “Can you read this for me?”
I shifted my own purse from one shoulder to the other and took the piece of paper from her. “Of course,” I said, and read the short paragraph to her, a letter from her doctor’s office.
“And they said next Tuesday?” she asked and I said yes, next Tuesday, and she repeated it again to herself, very quietly, before nodding her head and smiling. I smiled back. Then she picked through the letters on the table and asked if I thought any of them looked important. There were two from people running for office, and an advertisement from a rental place. I showed them to her.
“Those can wait,” she said, and put the letters in her purse. Then we talked a minute about the weather and how the gnats were bad this time of year, and as I held the door for her to go outside she turned to me.
“I didn’t forget my glasses,” she said and patted me on the arm. “The Lord don’t like it when we don’t tell the truth.” She thanked me for helping her and I smiled again and told her it was my pleasure. Then I watched for a moment as she walked slowly down the sidewalk and on across the parking lot.
I didn’t think a thing about her after that, the little lady in the post office. Not at first, not that morning, so self-absorbed again, I was, in my own work and my own stuff and my own little aggravations and hurdles to cross. But soon enough, when I got home and walked to the mail box and pulled out a half dozen letters and bills and grocery store ads of my own, it hit me. It had gotten past me before, completely gone over my head. “I didn’t forget my glasses,” she’d said and I didn’t think another thing about it.
The little lady in the post office with the soft wrinkles and worn black leather pocketbook with the silver buckle couldn’t read.
I will always remember a man I met once who told me the story of why he never learned to read. His name was Franklin, and he was born so long ago that he couldn’t even remember the year. He never went to school, not really, and instead got his learning on a farm where he and his brothers worked to help their daddy grow corn and raise livestock. His sisters went to school, he said, and they tried to teach them what they knew but the boys didn’t have much time for that.
He knew how to write his name, though. And he had three sons of his own. They all were named Franklin so he could know how to write theirs, too.
I asked him how he shopped for groceries or knew what medicines to take or found his way around town. “I get along,” he said. “With my family. And the kindness of strangers.”
The kindness of strangers.
As I read my mail that night I remembered Franklin, gone more than 20 years now, and said a prayer for the little lady that I met in the post office. I hope she finds kind strangers to help her along her way. And I reminded myself that I should look around more often, get out of my own thoughts and my own head long enough to see the needs around me and, hopefully, help in some small way.
Because everybody needs a little help every now and then. And you never know when it might be you.
Contact columnist Mandy Flynn at firstname.lastname@example.org.