Listening and Learning
Serendipity springs from its own fountain. Recently, on the same day, I became acquainted with three women. I watched one “show out” — a phrase the old folks used to compliment someone’s laudable behavior. One sought my advice. Another woman shared her secrets with a stranger. Immediately after meeting each woman, I recognized that I was, for each of them, a special audience; a listener.
When I asked the clerk in the flower section of the grocery store to please arrange a dozen roses in the vase I gave her, she smiled and said: “I can do that.” I sensed a certain zest in her voice and watched her fluid body movement that prepared me for “the show.” She carefully examined the rose petals and sprigs of fern, and rejected those unworthy of something she intended to be special.
We chatted as she worked, and she told me how long she had been an employee, yet she assured me: “But not forever. One day I will open my own florist shop. I promise you that.” My age and experience informed me that her expressions and laughter were like re-awakening emotions that had been dormant for a while. Today, she had the full attention of a man wearing a suit, who owned an expensive vase, and I sensed that when I spoke her name and said please, she felt validated as a person, rather than just a name on her employee issued badge.
Finally she was done. Before handing me the beautiful arrangement she cradled it and said: “Now, whoever gets this owes you a big hug, and I thank you sir for letting me prepare it for you.” I took the vase and also cradled it to affirm the uniqueness of her work and the pleasantness of her manner.
Our time had elapsed.
One hour later I arrived at a nursing home in Savannah, Georgia, where I was mindful that wearing a suit and walking briskly attracted the attention of the staff and residents. One elderly resident no longer had the strength to move her wheelchair in my direction, but her age entitled her to summon me; so she smiled and opened her arms and beckoned me to her warm embrace. Even the word priceless is inadequate to define the joy of our momentary exchange.
After visiting an old friend I headed for the exit, but a medical helper asked me to stop and spend a few minutes with her. She did not waste time: “Sir, I was informed that you’re an attorney. I would like your opinion.” When I hear that approach I instinctively expect a plea for legal advice – pro bono. Instead, she asked for information on how to further prepare to enter law school. And, to show appreciation for my time, she disclosed that she is within 20 semester hours of a bachelor’s degree and is scheduled to attend a forthcoming law school orientation. I asked her age. She told me 37 years. I told her I entered law school at age 52, and passed the California Bar Examination at age 56, a truth intended to dispel any notion that her age should discourage her quest. I could see her tears forming, and she took a big breath and rushed to give me a hug. We had never met, but I had seen “her kind” so many times. She is a seemingly un-credited extra in a cast of many, but one who is quietly building her own stage and writing her own script.
Even as we said goodbye I thought it likely that I would eventually get from her two invitations — the first to attend her graduation from law school; the second to her swearing-in-ceremony to the Bar.
An alarm sounded when I tried to exit the door of the nursing home. Just then another woman advised me that I needed a code to open the door. I jokingly asked if it was her way of keeping me, so that she could put me to work. She smiled and said: “Even though you’re dressed up, I can find something for you to do to give comfort to my folks. What shift do you want?” I informed her that long before I wore suits, I was an Air Force medical and surgical technician who gave comfort to folks on medical, surgical, orthopedic, neurosurgical and OB-GYN wards; supervised medical technicians in urology and proctology clinics, and wore scrubs and stood next to surgeons in surgery.
Word had already passed to her that the man in the suit is an attorney, and she asked: “How does a man go from doing that in medicine to being a lawyer?” There is no succinct answer to that question, so I offered a brief explanation that emphasized hard work and long days without much sleep or rest. She nodded her head, signaling her empathy for hard work and long hours.
And then she told me her private story, sharing confidences that she just wanted to express that day, because she said: “You make me believe I can trust you.” It was an honor conferred by a stranger. Sometimes there are no higher tributes. She finally gave me the code to open the door, and she invited me back to take the night shift.
It is a peaceful drive over the Savannah River into South Carolina along roads lined with live oaks and pine trees that lead to Bluffton and Hilton Head. My thoughts turned to the three women who had highlighted my day.
I sensed that, for a few minutes, each woman could pretend that she was presenting herself in her best light to a father; or an uncle; or an older brother; someone she wanted to appreciate her performance on that day and to encourage her aspirations of tomorrow.
If you’re lucky enough to live as long as your parents, you might also be lucky enough to appreciate their wisdom. Parents are obliged to teach their young some techniques for self-preservation, respect for others, and things which promote good citizenship. Sometimes they use symbols and phrases that, when properly interpreted, are worthy of sharing without translation.
My daddy was illiterate until he allowed me, at age five, to teach him the alphabet. Yet, before he learned his letters he observed: “‘…cause a man don’t know some things you know, don’t mean he don’t know some things you don’t know.”
Recently, as I traveled along a familiar highway in South Georgia near my childhood community of Valdosta, an old rusty sign captured my attention. It read “ANTIQUES,” and it hung appropriately over the threshold of an old building, almost buried by heaps of aged “stuff”. My greeter was a man who appeared to be the age of his oldest item. Upon quick inspection of me he offered: “Howdy there, you look like one of them important fellas.” I, not being modest that day, shook my head and accepted his appraisal. We then concentrated our search for an iron with a small gas cylinder tank mounted on the front. Because of the quantity of his inventory he had lost track of where he stashed it. But I did see another familiar item that I wanted. It was a tin bucket with a lid. When I attempted to pay him, he informed me: “You’ll have to deal with my wife, ‘… cause I can’t read.” It had been many decades since I heard a grown man declare such a disability. It was another reminder of my daddy.
Then the merchant asked me if I ever ate “hoe cakes.” My affirmative gave him an opportunity to search among the farm and garden antiques for a hoe; a large flat iron with a round hole in the middle at the top. Then he explained: “You see this here hoe. By day, farmers put a heavy handle in this here hole, and used it to hoe the fields. At night, they removed the handle, scoured this flat hoe, then put it in the stove and baked bread on it. That bread was your hoe cake.”
Both of us were pleased that I was better informed than before my arrival. His wife gave me a receipt for my purchase: “one night chamber pot,” a fancier name for what I knew was a “slop jar.”
As I descended the steps, the old merchant’s explanation confirmed Daddy’s wisdom: ‘… cause a man don’t know some things you know, don’t mean he don’t know some things you don’t know.”