A parishioner, with whom I shared a lovely coffee date earlier this week, today e-mailed me a brief memoir on which he’s been working for a bit. It shared in more complete detail a formative year in his early life about which he spoke on Monday. His story involves a remarkable account of the kindness of strangers. So I’m grateful for a prompt from Mary Beth over at the RevGals Facebook page that invites me to reflect on my own experience of the kindness of strangers. And because it is November, and I’m beginning to think about the Thanksgiving meal we are preparing to host, I’ll share one of the more dramatic memories I have.
It was my middle year of seminary in Chicago. Kevin, then boyfriend/now husband, was living in Michigan that year with his parents. I made my way from Chicago to southwest Michigan the Monday before Thanksgiving, I believe. And then the two of us headed out, on Tuesday, across Michigan, and across Canada, headed for my home in upstate New York. It was a gorgeous late fall day. We took a leisurely drive across Canada, even stopping to poke around antique stores. But as we approached the bridge to the U.S. the skies were changing, and by the time we got to the bridge the skies were foreboding and the snow was beginning to fall– maybe it was really coming down. It must have been because the border guards waved us along without checking id or anything. “Just keep moving,” they yelled, “Don’t stop!” That was disconcerting.
As we approached Buffalo (yet several miles from home) the skies dumped heavy snow. There was green lightning. The traffic on the highways came to a standstill and the snow was accumulating so fast folks had to get out of their vehicles and brush them off to be able to see. Some folks were siphoning gas out of their tanks to assist others who were running out (that in and of itself was evidence of the kindness of strangers). We were good on gas, but a bit dumbfounded about what we should do.
At some point, a plow came through and cleared the lane next to us. We got into that lane with gratitude. But felt less grateful when we discovered it was an exit only lane. We exited into the suburb of Cheektowaga. What we should have done was to pull into the hotel parking lot near the ramp. And tried to get a room. The cars abandoned all over the roadways SHOULD have led us to that cautionary measure. But my toyota was not getting stuck and I was focusing on the map trying to figure out an alternate route to keep us moving to our destination. We kept going until someone told us the road was worse ahead and we had to go around the block and head back to the hotel. In my head I was thinking “NO! Not a sidestreet in a blizzard!” But I didn’t say it. For some reason. And we made our way onto a side street and then successfully turned onto another side street and got half way down it and… stopped. Totally stuck. We pulled out the shovel Kev’s mom had put in our car and Kev started digging… but this was a Herculean task… He was shoveling the street… He tried putting his coat under the wheels… Everything… Eventually the owner of the house in front of which we were stuck asked if we wanted another shovel. I gratefully accepted and started digging with Kev. Still… no luck.
The situation was beginning to feel desperate when the owner of the house said “You’re not ax murderers, right? Do you want to stay here?” Exhausted. Freezing. Defeated. And… GRATEFUL. We didn’t hesitate, “NO, not axe murderers. YES, please. THANK YOU!” Somehow we got our car in her driveway. And then came in to warm up and get to know her and her son. We spent the night in her son’s bunk bed (much to his chagrin). She fed us well. She was rather giddy about her good deed– when an ambulance later got stuck in front of her house her eyebrows raised and her son said “Now mom, don’t get any big ideas!” The next morning the area was in a state of emergency. There was a travel ban. But we really wanted to get home for the holiday. And there was a break in the storm. So our host guided us out of town on back roads, out of range of law enforcement, and sent us on our way.
I used to know her name. I have long since forgotten it. But I will never forget her and the way her kindness and her hospitality transformed despair into hope.