Several years ago, when I was out for lunch with my mom in a larger than tiny town about a half hour drive from where I grew up, I had an experiences that I’ll never forget.  We get so caught up in our modern world, with so many conveniences and enlightened ideas, that it’s all too easy to leave the more difficult times to the vague realm of the subconscious.  All kinds of things live there.  Memories, dreams, wishes even.  Things we have to do, need to do, and want to do all jockeying for position among the things we hear, read, watch on TV and in movies, snatches of dialogue, imagery that won’t quite let go, and fleeting experiences that float away as fast as we think we’ve captured them.  Ephemera, if you will.

Among all that is a corner where the things we’re all too aware of, but don’t quite want to think about, live.  Reports on the news of murder, theft, war, natural disaster, grief, despair…most of it leading up to vivid images we’d really love to forget, but that once seen stay with us.  Our brain doesn’t quite know what to do with this kind of information, so it files it away in a place where it won’t bombard us constantly.  Where we can access it if we must, but can allow it its uncomfortable bed otherwise.  Stories from history are like that too.  The wider history of the world at large, and sometimes from closer to home.  The latter was the kind that hit me broadside that day.

I pulled up to a convenience store, and went inside to buy a carwash code.  As I went in, I noticed someone coming up behind me in that vague way that registers another presence we don’t really pay attention to.  Just another person, out to get gas, buy some food, or any one of a myriad of little, inconsequential experiences that make up daily life.  This person didn’t register as anything beyond someone I should hold the door open for, so it didn’t whack them in the face on their way in. 

Common decency.

Perhaps not.

I was well into the store when I heard a soft voice call out.  “Miss?”

Thinking it probably had nothing to do with me, as I couldn’t be the only unidentifiable woman around, I didn’t respond. Then it came again, more urgently.  “Miss!”

Still not thinking I was the “Miss” in question, I did turn that time.  Just in case. Standing near, but still at a respectful distance, was a tall, lanky black gentleman.  I couldn’t begin to guess his age.  He had that timeless, almost ageless look people sometimes get over the course of a lifetime of hard earnest work.  Some end up looking worn out and dried up, while others seem to take on a sort of dignified agelessness that they wear well though unaware of it.  He had on khaki work type clothes and looked a little uneasy.  I had the impression that he felt compelled to do something well outside his comfort zone, and later admired him all the more for it.

When I smiled inquiringly, he answered with a shy smile of his own, and a bombshell that reverberates still.  “I just wanted to say thank you.”  While my mind raced trying to figure out what he could be talking about, he finished the little speech that couldn’t have been rehearsed but came out so eloquently.  “You’re the only person who ever held open a door for me.”

Stunned on so many levels that I didn’t know what to say, instinct took over.  I smiled back, said I was happy to do it, and we both smiled again.  He nodded a little, as if reassuring himself he’d said what he needed to say, and walked away.  Immediately, I started thinking of things I might have said or done.  Should I have said more?  What more could I have said?  Maybe I should have held out my hand for him to shake.  Or maybe that would have embarrassed him and ruined the moment.  What could I possibly have done that would make a tiny moment more of a true momentous occasion?

That last question was my answer.  It was a moment.  The fact that it was spontaneous on both sides, filled with gratitude and humility on both sides was what it was.  A moment in history.  I was blessed to have parents who brought me up to respect everyone, even in a place that had at one time teemed with such hatred and rage and vengeance sought for crimes uncommitted…crimes borne of simply existing.  It nearly broke my heart to think of such a kind, humble man spending his entire life in such a way that he was so acutely aware than no one had ever held a door for him until I did that day.  It hurts me that it was such an unconscious act on my part. 

It had never occurred to me that there were people still treated badly in my part of the south.  The part that had enabled children to go to school the day desegregation took effect as if nothing very unusual was happening.  Little girls played Barbies on the floor, sharing whatever the one with the most Barbie stuff had brought.  Little boys rolled little Mercedes and tractors side by side, sharing whatever had been under their Christmas trees and in brightly wrapped birthday presents. There was no us or them on the playground.  There was we. 

And yet here was evidence that “we” was a sheltered realm, where people were people, everyone shared, and doors were never allowed to whack someone else in the face.  Another realm existed just out of phase with that one.  A realm where a kind, humble man spent decades of his life noticing that doors were slammed shut when thoughtless people never noticed that someone was in need of an open door, and more importantly an open mind. 

I think of that nameless man still, and hope so much that the profound moment I inadvertently provided for him was not the last he’ll experience.  And I’m grateful for the reminder that no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential our daily actions may be, for all we know they could be a tiny thread woven quietly into the unread pages of history.

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