The kindness of strangers — and mum

Christene - Phoenix, Arizona
Entered on February 19, 2008

Blanche DuBois relied on the kindness of strangers.

If my mother had met Tennessee Williams’ ill-fated heroine, she would have struck up a conversation, bought her a coffee, probably given her a few bucks.

Like Blanche and my mother, I believe in the transcendent qualities of kindness.

Since mum’s recent death, our family has received hundreds of cards. All mention kindness. They pay homage to her other traits — her wit, musical abilities, love of family and theater, fondness for chocolate, big hats and flashy scarves. All mention kindness, from friends in her college orchestra to the physicians and nurses who treated her osteoporosis and heart disease.

Webster defines kindness as “of a gentle nature, disposed to be helpful, agreeable.”

In our small Montana town, mum made certain all the neighborhood kids – particularly loners — were invited to birthday parties. “Strays and singles” were welcome at our Thanksgiving table.

Mum baked cookies for widowers. She took in stray dogs and walked our elderly piano teacher home.

Her kindness was likely born of her own pain. A tall, gangly grade-schooler, she was teased by her peers. She persevered, excelling in drama, music and writing, becoming a gifted ballerina and finishing her master’s in guidance and counseling. She used her experience as a recovering alcoholic to exhibit kindness, forgiveness, compassion. Although she and my father were divorced in 1966, she became his caretaker in 1996, nursing him through the horrors of Alzheimer’s until his death in 2005.

Others did not always exhibit the kindness that came naturally to mum. Once, in the 1960s, she and daddy were not invited to a neighborhood party. Because she was a “recovering person” before it was fashionable, she was sometimes snubbed by the cocktail crowd.

Recently, a senior card group replaced her. One of the women was annoyed when mum excused herself to use the bathroom, apparently taking too long.

A small act of kindness can have profound consequences.

Two nights before mum died, my sister and I flew from Sacramento to Billings. In Seattle, our flight was delayed; the pilot warned it might be cancelled. My sister burst into tears, afraid we would miss our good-bye to mum. A man across the aisle produced a linen handkerchief, offering it to my sister. Eventually, we made it to Billings for our good-bye. The stranger sent flowers to the memorial.

Two years ago, shortly after my husband passed away, I was struggling to disengage a baggage cart at Phoenix airport. A strange woman wrestled it from the holder and helped me to a taxi. I asked how I could repay her; she said, “Pass it on.”

Perhaps this is our legacy, mum’s gift to those who loved her. I like to think that we — her children, nieces, nephews, grandchildren and great grandchildren – inherited her ability to “pass it on,” to share the kindness that was second nature to her.

I believe if we do this, we keep mum — and kindness — alive.