The week before Christmas you have to expect some encounters with a few strangers. It's a busy world out there. Sometimes the encounters aren't pleasant, but this week I met 3 strangers who put a smile on my face.
1 - Jim, New Buddy at the Hardware Store
Early this week I made a quick stop to a hardware store in search of holly. I needed exactly 9 leaves for a project. A very nice man by the name of Jim seemed intrigued with my mission and clipped off more than I needed from a plant. "Wait! That looks better out there!" He said, pointing to a tree next to where I'd parked my car. I'd seen the red berries earlier, but figured the security guard would not approve if I swiped a branch. Jim insisted and as we wandered to the tree with clippers, we chatted about my odd project and Jim chuckled as he handed me a couple of fine branches. (Let's say the tree needed trimming, anyway) Then when I mentioned wanting to some greenery for the mantel at home, Jim grabbed a cart and had me follow him to a big pile where they'd been trimming trees. "Take as much as you like, it's free!" After I collected a bit, I noticed something shimmering and rushed over to discover a nostalgic delight. "Jim!" I had to share my tinsel discovery with my new buddy. "Look what I found! I didn't know they made tinsel anymore!" He seemed equally pleased. I bought the last tinsel packet for $1.95 and told Jim to have a Merry Christmas. I let him know he had made my day. I carried the purchase and free greenery to the car and headed home to start my project.
"Nine Leaves of Holly!"
Just to let you know...the project is done and I mailed it to my 3 year old nephew for Christmas. It was a book...a crazy version of the "12 Days of Christmas" using photos of my 2 inch Little Bear.
2 - Margarita, the Baker
A few days later I made a stop at Margarita's Bakery in Richmond. I often take this quiet neighborhood route and wonder about the people who live in the cozy little houses. I'd seen the bakery sign before, but never thought of stopping. Why not? I could buy some cookies and give some business to someone who might really need it.
The Cozy Shop
The little house smelled like a storybook bakery! The sun poured in the ruffly curtains and 2 batches of gingerbread cookies had just come out of a well-used oven. Margarita said she only took pre-orders but she gave me a mini strawberry cupcake to sample and offered a cookie as well. As I nibbled my cupcake we talked about how Margarita's bakery business has been running for nearly 30 years. She admitted that she had closed shop for a few years when her son became ill and then later her husband. "It's my third time opening!" She said with a smile. I wasn't sure if her son and husband survived the cancer. But you can be sure she gave them excellent care. She seemed like a kind and hardworking woman. I took her card and am eager to get back and place an order!
3 - Post Office Man
On December 18, I made my annual trip to the Post Office with 6 boxes on my rolling cart. I was nearly disappointed to see only 3 people waiting. I love this insane part of the holidays when the long line ends up forcing people to chat with one another and I eventually skip out the door empty handed. In only a moment I was wheeling my silly cart to the counter and I laughed to the man assisting me, "Just a few boxes here!" I was cheery! He was not. I babbled while he dealt with my load. He ignored me mostly until I said. "I swore I would do all shopping online this year and avoid this." "Well, why didn't you?" He shook his head. "Because I found a wonderful shop where you can buy beautiful things that support a home for mentally challenged adults..." He actually paused and inquired about the place. Then a co-worker passed by and greeted him and my grumpy man answered in monotone, "Glad to be here today." I looked at this weary worker and laughed, "You don't act like you're glad to be here." He sighed and admitted he'd been out a few days and was glad to no longer be home sick. He was softening and I was starting to remember how it feels to be dragged down by flu. Then the man laughed softly and admitted, "I won't be happy to be here in a couple hours. It will be a zoo." When he finished with my boxes, he seemed once again a little annoyed that I needed some Christmas stamps. But I got one more chuckle from him, when I took the tiny stack of stamps and announced. "Ok. I'm going to load my stamps onto my cart and head on out of here!!" He shook his head and smiled and I told him "Merry Christmas!"
Thanks, My Trio of Holiday Strangers!
You shared a little holiday spirit! Jim, your eagerness to help got my week off to a good start! Margarita, you were gentle and kind and reminded me of the simple things...baking cookies. And Mr. Postal Man, you gave me a little fun with your stubbornness! I like you all and will be thinking of you on Christmas!
I met Will last June in a Ghost Town not far from Breckenridge. I heard him laughing when I stooped down to take a photo of a cat..with my lens cap on. We chatted a while about the amazing ghost town museum where he worked. "Did you notice there are no Do Not Touch! signs?" He asked. He took such pride in all the ways the museum staff worked to make visitors feel welcome when they explored.
2 Days Earlier
My husband and I found the refurbished ghost town while exploring the town of Fairplay a few days before. We didn't have time to buy a ticket and tour, but we peeked down the Main Street with the wooden walks and colorful storefronts.
My eyes were drawn to the man wearing suspenders, rumbling his wheelbarrow down the planks of the walkway. He was not exactly a young man, but there was something energetic and positive about the way he moved. I had a feeling this man was very content with whatever job he was involved in.
This is the cat I took a picture of on our visit 2 days later. Don and I had this intriguing museum of quaint old barns, shops and houses to ourselves on a beautiful crisp morning. We wandered in and out of an old saloon, explored the inside of a caboose, sighed at the sweet old desks and dunce stool in a red school house...and everywhere we went our cat followed us and amused us. We were at the end of our visit when I insisted Don pose with our friend. That's when I heard Will chuckle.
A Little Sharing
For many minutes we chatted with Will and learned how an 80 year old man, who retired in Pennsylvania ended up becoming a maintenance man at a ghost town in Colorado. You could tell Will was far too educated and skilled to be doing this kind of labor at any age. He moved to Fairplay eager to volunteer with the museum, but ended up being offered a job. "I told them I was too old for that," He laughed, "but I offered to work until they found someone. That was 5 years ago!"
When I mentioned something about the hard work, Will admitted he had some help.
"I've got a young helper." He explained. "He's pretty much my legs!" Don and I had seen this cheery pre-teen wandering around earlier proudly carrying an electric drill. There was something delightfully eager about this boy when we asked him a question earlier. He answered us with grin and a country twang that reminded us of the young Forest Gump.
Will explained that he had worried over the boy a couple years ago. The boy had lived in Fairplay until his father took off, deserting the boy and his mother. The mother and son ended up moving away and that's when Will worried that the boy was starting to get into trouble. "I arranged with his mom to have him come live with me in the summers. So he gets a chance to work with me here and learn some skills. We're a good team."
Thanks Will! First you delighted me with your positive outlook. I don't often bump into people who seem to be so content with their life. But after seeing that young boy whistling down the same plank walkway where I had seen you the first day, I knew you had the ability to help others become content! There need to be more mentors in the world like you!
Okawville, Illinois 1984
Whenever my husband and I recall this odd hotel, we remember the 50-mile bike ride that took us there.
We remember the eerie mineral spa, that looked like a set for a horror film. And we remember the middle aged man with a somewhat pained expression on his face.
Before meeting our mystery man that evening, Don and I absorbed some of the history (and creepiness) of the hotel which was rebuilt in 1893 after a fire. After checking into our no-frills room we had a number of options in the spa. I turned down the steam cabinet that reminded me of an I Love Lucy episode. Instead I chose to spend some time soaking in a tub filled with warm mineral water. An attendant gave me a robe and delivered me to a dim and dusty room where I sat in an old claw footed tub. I did more chuckling than relaxing as I sat in that tub. There was something a little too Twilight Zone-ish about the whole experience. I wasn't sure I should close my eyes and relax.
An Encounter at Dinner
It was at dinner that we met our stranger. As I recall, our restaurant table was in sort of an indoor garden not far from a heated pool. As we sipped our drinks waiting to order, we absorbed our somewhat quirky surroundings...historic mineral springs spa meets 1970's era "Holidome".
Not far from our table a man of about 50 was dining alone. We didn't really notice him until he finished his meal and stood to leave. He paused a moment and drew a deep breath before heading towards our table. He seemed to be looking more at Don than me when he greeted us softly and apologized for interrupting. Maybe my memory exaggerates, but he seemed more shaken than delighted when he spoke to Don. "I couldn't help but notice you." He sort of shook his head in disbelief. "But you look so much like my son."
Most of us have been told we look like someone else, but the conversation is usually light and playful...or a light bulb moment. "Hey, you remind me of..." But this man seemed overwhelmed as he studied Don's face. The man asked a few questions about Don's age and where he was from. We were curious, but asked no questions ourselves, both fearing the son was deceased. Then before leaving the man reached in his pocket and pulled out his wallet. The photo he showed us of his son showed a clear resemblance towards Don. But the man's expression made it certain he thought Don looked exactly like the photo.
When the man was gone, he left us with a lingering mood of sad confusion. Don and I sat and debated all the possibilities. If the son hadn't died then what could have happened between the father and son to make this man so emotional over the reminder of his son?
So Thanks, Dear Worried Dad, Being young 20-somethings we didn't often think about the world from our parents' view. We were reminded that day about relationships between grown kids and parents. We'll never know what happened in the past between you and your son, but it was evident in our brief encounter that you cared for him very much.
1981 in Laguna Beach, California
While living in Laguna Beach I had a pretty idyllic job one summer, working with a children's program housed in the cozy American Legion Hall, just a block from the South Coast Highway. In the afternoons I took the kids outside for activities in the shady yard, surrounded by a picket fence. We didn't have a view of the beach, but we were right across the street from one of the better known Hare Krishna Temples in the States.
Festivals at the Temple
One summer day, the Temple had a daylong celebration. Saffron colored robes and colorful saris flooded the steps and yard. The area was alive with waving banners and flowing fabric. The smells of exotic foods and the sounds of chanting, drumming and clinking finger cymbals drifted towards our yard. When I took the kids out in the afternoon, the kids were drawn towards the fence to watch. They looked on quietly with no questions, since they were used to seeing people come and go near the building across the street. "There are the Krishnas." I heard one child remind another.
My Own Memories
I let the kids watch a moment, but then encouraged them towards painting and games in the yard. I felt uncomfortable. It was only a few years earlier that I had my first encounter in an airport when oddly dressed men with shaved heads, smiled and offered their "books" with awkward enthusiasm.
Over the years I continued to observe Hare Krishna in other public places, always cheerful as they shared their music and chanting. But I felt leery when they came too close. I knew there might be an invitation to a meal or a meeting or just another book. I knew the people chanting across the street were no threat, I just didn't understand them. Besides, the kids were obviously not bothered. They happily left the fence and got caught up in other activities.
By late afternoon, the Krishna celebration had thinned. A little drumming lingered in the air, mixing oddly with the patriotic tunes of a tap dance class that had just started up in the Legion Hall. As the festival participants dispersed, some strolled down the sidewalk along the fence. I noticed one woman draped in bright fabric catching the eye of 2 children. She paused to greet them with an almost trance-like smile. As I moved towards the kids I heard the woman's eager voice, "Can you say, Hare?" I felt annoyed as I approached the grinning woman who leaned in to hear one boy mumble a response. "Can you say Hare?!" She returned with twice the volume and enthusiasm. I ushered the kids away and gave the woman a quick nod that could be interpreted in many ways. Mostly I didn't want the kids to feel my discomfort. Why should they learn to be uncomfortable or afraid of people who are different? Such a teachable moment, and I took the easy route by simply reminding kids not to talk to strangers.
Thank you Krishna Woman...for making me think. I didn't like your enthusiasm that day. You could have just smiled to the kids without inviting them to chant. But I have thought of you over the years and I wonder how many times you have been misunderstood. 32 years ago, I thought I was open and accepting of people of other races, religions and sexual orientation. And I feel like I have become even more so over the years. But my memory of you has made me realize that after 32 years, I don't really know any more about Hare Krishna than I did in 1981. Why is that?
No Longer a Stranger
I feel like Mary Ann is a friend now, but when I called her this past May, she was a stranger.
Mary Ann lives in an area of Alabama called Gee's Bend, where women have quilted for generations. I found her phone number on the internet when I was exploring the idea of stopping in Gee's Bend while on a road trip with my husband. I called and introduced myself and asked a few questions. She answered my question about local accommodations with an easy going reply. "Well, there are no motels here, but you can stay here at my house." Then she added with a laugh. "If you don't mind my housekeeping."
Getting to Gee's Bend
It wasn't easy finding this tiny Alabama community, tucked into a bend of the Alabama River. While on the road we made several calls to Mary Ann, first when we got lost and later when we learned the ferry was closed. Mary Ann chuckled over the phone letting me know the unreliable ferry was a constant bother. After another 45 minutes driving around the river, we eventually spotted one of the quilt murals that are scattered about the small community. We found Mary Ann's modest brick house and a family of kittens on the front porch. As I knocked on the door I laughed to myself. "We are knocking on the door of a stranger... to stay at her house!"
When Mary Ann opened her door I felt welcomed by a hug, a laugh and the smell of just baked butter bundt cake. Mary Ann's used to playing host to travelers and she seemed comfortable inviting us in, but I was still pretty confused about what the plan was. We had talked about staying in her guest room and meeting the local quilters the next day. But what about dinner? We couldn't even offer to take her to dinner since there are no real restaurants in Gee's Bend. But Mary Ann had already contacted her friend Keitsha, who started a cooking business from her home. "Keitsha's cooking the catfish right now. She likes us to eat it while it's hot, so we better go get it." So we feasted on the catfish as well as biscuits, homemade macaroni and chicken strips. There's nothing like home cooking to make guests feel comfortable.
After dinner we experienced a little bit of Mary Ann's world when she took us to her grand niece's softball game. While we chatted with family in the bleachers I took in the atmosphere of summertime kids on the field, batting and running without uniforms or helmets and some without shoes. There were younger kids playing near a rustic Maypole, recently "woven" at a May Day Event. There were men congregating under a shade tree, along with a saddled horse. After the game we went "visiting" to meet Mary Ann's sister Julie, in her cozy living room. We met the grandkids Julie is raising and heard her dreams of retiring and doing mission work.
Getting to Know Mary Ann
But it wasn't until later on that night when we gathered around a folding table and Mary Ann pulled out bags of quilt material, that I began to feel completely at home. As we looked at numerous projects our talk went off on a million tangents. I heard about Mary Ann's mother who was the oldest of 17 and then had 12. I heard about Mary Ann's years working at the sewing factory in Selma, making blue jeans. I learned about Mary Ann's last name. She reminded me that all the Pettways in Gee's Bend are not related, they are just descendants of slaves who were given the name by plantation owner Mark Pettway.
And of course we talked about quilting. Mary Ann said she starts with small pieces and the project just grows. She likes colored fabric more than printed and red is her favorite. Sometimes she gets caught up working and her hands have to tell her when to quit...like when she keeps poking the same tender spot with the needle. And even though many of us have images of quilters working together, Mary Ann said she really likes working alone. "What do you think about when you quilt?" I asked. "Good thoughts." She paused, then added. "I'm very blessed." Mary Ann said she gets a lot of quilting done in the car on trips to show quilts. Many of her quilts are named for the memory of where she started the project, "I have 2 quilts I call Holiday Inn Express I and II." Mary Ann laughed. Or "Runnin' My Mouth" for the one she started on her sister's porch, when she was jabbering away telling stories.
I had to laugh when she told me some quilt friends called her the Bag Lady, because she's always picking up discarded scraps that no one else wants. "I call 'em L'il Pee
Wees!" She laughed. "I find 2 pieces with colors that look good
together and 2 sides that'll match up and I start by stitchin' 'em together." I marveled, watching her hands juggling the tiny pieces, using her finger nails to smooth the seems flat.
I was in a trance watching and listening as she talked about how things began to change when the quilters were suddenly spotlighted in national news. "Oprah sent her crew out with cameras one time. Soon we were being invited to big cities to show our quilts...and sing." She told us about John McCain visiting the area when he was campaigning. "He bought 10,000 dollars worth of quilts!" Mary Ann sort of chuckled at the thought.
"And when Obama was elected, we made a quilt and had it sent to him at the White House." She showed us a picture of the quilt and pointed out the pieces she created. I think Mary Ann's rectangle in 2 tones of blue, is the most unusual. I would love to have heard the conversations that took place as the Gee's Bend women worked on that quilt. I also would love to have seen their faces when they heard the unofficial news that Michelle is interested in having the quilting ladies visit the White House!
The Next Day
At 6 am we heard the sound of the school bus outside and the sound of Mary Ann in the kitchen. I greeted her at the stove in her curlers and apron as she busied herself cooking eggs, grits and 2 kinds of sausage.
After breakfast we took a drive around the area. We passed more quilt murals, created to look like some of the original Gee's Bend quilts that were bought up by art collectors a while back. We passed a horse on the side of the road, happily grazing. And we stopped to see Mary Ann's Baptist church where her mom and other adult family members packed in, to hear Dr. Martin Luther King preach in 1965. Many of those residents ended up joining Dr. King, in Selma, for voting rights. (the unreliable ferry had long been known to become more unreliable around election time)
Late morning, after a visit to the ferry terminal where the quilters gather on weekdays, Don and I joined Mary Ann at The Collective. Mary Ann couldn't have looked more at home in the cozy wood building that houses quilts made by locals. She has plenty to do as manager, organizing and selling quilts, handling emails and phone calls and meeting up with occasional visitors. Sometimes she has time to work on her own projects, too...of which there are many. We were sad that Mary Ann had no quilts of her own to sell, because they are gone too fast. But I asked to buy the sample of "L'il Pee Wees" that she had shown me in her demonstration the night before. And I placed an order, for her to complete a piece she was started on.
So thanks, Mary Ann! You welcomed us warmly, sharing your home, family and friends, not to mention stories and thoughts. I'll always remember how you answered Don's last question before we left. He wanted to know if you ever made a piece or a quilt, that you just couldn't part with?
You answered so quickly, that you loved all the quilts you made, but you loved them and sold them. Then you paused and showed us this orange, green and brown piece, made with fabrics that came from South Africa. You studied it and changed your mind.
"I might have to keep this..." You took a moment to look at the design, as if you'd never seen it before. "I really like this one."
I hope you kept it Mary Ann! You deserve to have something special of your own!
I just met Ted a couple weeks ago while stopping in Leadville on a road trip with my husband. His cowboy hat, knotted scarf and vest hinted at his days working on ranches and riding in rodeos.
We spotted his little blue gallery when out walking. He had just arrived on a motorized chair and was moving carefully towards the door with a cane. When Don and I stopped in a few minutes later, the radio was playing and the lights were shining on Ted's watercolors and sculptures.
From Bronco riding to the mines...
Ted told us some stories about his days growing up in Alamosa. He worked ranches and rodeo circuits until an injury lead him to seek work at nearby Climax Mine. When the mine discovered his art talents they hired him full time doing weekly cartoons and illustrations for manuals. He was able to retire when the mines closed in the 1980's to enjoy his first love, art.
We bought a print to help remember Ted. I'll remember a couple of his stories, one about sketching at the Taos Pueblo and another about losing all his money in Vegas...which earned him the nickname Lucky Boy. But I'll also remember the man who moved slowly behind his desk, writing up our ticket. I'll remember how his cane fell over and I tried to discreetly recover it while he leaned with his body to work the old credit card machine. It was sad to see this 86 year old man moving so cautiously, when I could imagine the younger, adventurous Ted. But then I looked at the walls covered in art...
Thanks, Ted. Your artwork reminded me not to feel sorry for you. You have an artistic gift that I wish I had. You may have been forced to give up riding and roping years ago, but you were able to reflect those days in your artwork. I'm not sure how much you paint and draw today, but you are very much still involved with your art. I should be so "Lucky" when I am your age!
Morning Music in Austin, TX
It's not unusual to bump into extroverted performers on 6th Street in Austin. But on the patio of the lovely Driskill Hotel I wasn't expecting to hear 2 conservatively dressed guys belt out, "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" at 10 in the morning!
My sister and I were having breakfast with our mom when the two polo shirted entertainers, sprung up from the street and began their lively performance. I noticed another man seated nearby taking a couple photos and marking something down in a notebook. My sister and I were incredibly amused because these two looked like the last people you would expect to be acting like giddy boys on a dare.
Why were they there?
I introduced myself to the singing strangers who were just about to rush off. It turns out they were employees of Dell Computer, on a team-building mission filled with silly challenges like singing in public. (Their boss was the one taking the photo)
Praise the Performance
My sister snapped a few pictures, because we were actually on a mission ourselves. Jennifer and I were spending a week together celebrating my 50th birthday. On my list of 50 Ways to Celebrate my 5oth was Challenge #25, Pay a compliment to a stranger. So I was able to cross off #25 on my list when I greeted these two good-humored guys and raved about their singing abilities! (And nerve!)
Thank You, Singing Dell Guys!
It was a treat to see some successful (I assume) business men acting like kids! And you really weren't geeks at all. You sort of remind me of my sister and me and all our years of daring each other to be silly. Jennifer and I were spending a week being silly when we caught your show. Too bad you had to race to work on the rest of your list. It would have been fun to have shared a few hours working on our lists together!
Here's a link to my Birthday List and the fun I had with my sister!http://www.tributewebdesign.com/beth/list.html
Central Library in St. Louis
Inside this wonderful library on a fall day in 1976, there were numerous characters who seemed to be lost in their own worlds. But I will never forget one man who broke the whisper rule and shared a bit of his own wisdom.
Karen and Me
I was a 19 year old college student and it was fall break. Friends were heading out of town on adventures and I was stuck in St. Louis, working nights as a theatre usher to pay tuition. But my days were free and so was my friend Karen. Karen and I shared an important ability, which is especially rare today. We were able to entertain ourselves for great lengths of time, without spending a penny. (Although we did spend a few coins at a photo booth once)
On October 25, 1976, Karen and I made plans to drive downtown and explore our own city as if it were Paris...without spending a cent. The main focus of our adventure would be the impressive St. Louis Central Library with its monumental entrance and palace-like interior.
First we wandered through rooms and studied the ornate ceilings and stained glass windows. There were arches and chandeliers that really did make us think we'd taken a trip to Europe.
It was hard to imagine getting absorbed in a book with so many distractions. Echoing footsteps...the smells of old books and polished wood...grand windows to stare out and pictures painted on the ceiling.
This library was established (long before the building) in 1865 with only 1,500 books. Who knows how many there were in 1976, but we cracked a few. We browsed through books of quotations and memorized some of the best, so we could later use them in nonsense conversation as we strolled down busy sidewalks. We thumbed through phone books from distant cities, looking for friends from the past. We sat in small chairs in the Children's Room and enjoyed some colorful picture books. Then we had an amusing time fumbling with some microfilm. I don't remember what we looked at, but I do remember that we were very pleased with our accomplishments.
It began to feel strange when we entered the Periodicals Room. The tables were full of men reading newspapers. There was something sad and timeless about this image. It felt like we were entering a library during the depression, with jobless men searching the want ads. Then I began to breathe in the stale odor of the room and realized some of these men had not seen showers in some time. I felt uneasy at first, to recognize the fact that the library was a shelter to many homeless during the day. But it also made me secretly glad they had such a wonderful place to come.
Observing the people in the library turned out to be just as intriguing as the architecture and books. In the Popular Room, Karen and I flipped through books while glancing around, wondering where these library guests came from. Business men on lunch hour? Old retired couples, tired of watching TV? And then my eyes stopped on a man, with matted hair and a coat almost stiff with filth. He looked up from his paper as I was staring and I was jolted by his strikingly handsome face. An actor, playing a homeless man? In that second when our eyes met I panicked that I'd been caught staring, but his eyes were distant and spacey. He grinned towards me, yet his mind seemed far away.
Karen and I moved to another room and chose books we were actually interested in and settled at a large wooden table. I studied a book about the 1966 flood in Florence, Italy. Karen chose a pictorial on Japan. We were suddenly aware of a man dressed in torn clothing standing over us, slowly shaking his head. He spoke to Karen, "You're turning the pages too fast. You're not enjoying each picture." We both sort of laughed politely and the man walked away.
The man returned a while later and leaned over my book. I could smell alcohol and his voice was loud enough to make others turn. "And you should keep a dictionary with you. Don't pretend you know all the words." Ordinarily I would have moved away from a lecturing stranger with booze on his breath. But there was something protective about this old library and something oddly wise and peaceful about this odd man. "Look at the quality of the pages!" he said with sudden enthusiasm. "Feel how smooth they are. You don't realize how beautiful these pages are, because you're so young."
Thank You, Library Man
Thank you for reminding us to appreciate books. Not just for the stories, but for the pages themselves and for the words that we don't always know. I don't remember how our conversation ended. In fact I didn't even remember the part about your alcohol breath until I found it in a journal recently. I do know that Karen and I felt a little odd after you left. You made us stop and wonder a bit. That's always good. And remembering you has made me wonder about that impressive library. I discovered on the internet that the 100 year old library just completed massive renovations!
It looks beautiful in the film footage! http://central.slpl.org/
So Many Cruise Passengers
Thelma was one of 3,000 or so passengers on my recent Caribbean cruise ship. I will forget all the others, but I will never forget this dear woman.
So Many People
It's very easy to make friends on a cruise ship. Elevators are filled with chatty strangers and dining rooms are filled with shared tables. But I boarded the ship, eager to spend time with my family and read books. I wasn't in the mood to be social...until I spotted Thelma.
We were doing a little celebrating in the Martini Bar when I first noticed Thelma. She sat alone (blocked by our waiter) with an untouched glass of wine, wearing a glittery green dress. She looked so quiet and dignified. Or did she look worried? I couldn't stop wondering why she was alone.
Then I noticed a young man in a white cruise uniform enter the bar and head directly for Thelma's table. He kissed her cheek and she beamed. He squatted beside her and they chatted for a while before he rushed off. I wondered if he was her son and she rode the ship to be near him. But after a while Thelma was surrounded by other uniformed fans who greeted her with hugs and lingered for brief conversations. I waited until she was alone and then greeted Thelma myself. "What's your trick?" I wanted to know. "I noticed you're getting lots of hugs from men in uniform!" Thelma seemed delighted with my question and leaned in to share her news. "I know everyone who works on this ship... this is my 115th cruise on Princess Cruise Lines!" After I gasped at the news, Thelma followed with the humble remark, "But I'm not the top cruiser on this trip. There's someone who has me outnumbered." I was dizzy with the thought of endless cruising. While Thelma chatted about port stops and cruise tips...and how much she liked my dress, I tried to do the math to figure out how much of Thelma's life might be spent cruising. But before long it was time for our dinner reservation. I introduced my family to Thelma and we were off, without a chance to ask all the questions I really wanted to ask.
I'm glad I got to share a cruise ship with you. I could picture you wearing a crown. The Princess.... or even The Queen of Princess Cruises!
We saw you on other nights, sitting at your same spot. I didn't want to stalk or bombard you with more questions, but I rarely wonder so much about a stranger. When was your first cruise? Do you always travel alone? Do you get lonely? How do you make each trip special? What do you do during the day? Is it sad when you go home? Do you have a home? Don't you get tired of cruises? What do you love best...least? What's the craziest thing you've witnessed on a cruise? Saddest? Scariest?
I could have asked you those questions, and more. But I think I preferred just guessing the answers. Sometimes the mystery is a better memory.
A Wanderer with a Vision
When we met Chris, the owner of Cowhead Ranch he had just stepped out of his dusty white Lincoln and was being greeted by 3 yapping dogs. He didn't look too "cowboy" with his ball cap, down vest and dark shades, but when he opened his mouth, he spoke like a cowboy.
Chris greeted us with a strong handshake, but spoke gently like a man who was used to spending a lot of time alone.
Middle of Nowhere!
We heard about Chris and his ranch earlier that morning when we struck up a conversation with a waitress in Study Butte, Texas. When she heard the direction we were headed she mentioned the ranch and said we should stop in. She was new to the area and had been staying at the Ranch temporarily. She said Chris would love to have us stop in.
A Tiny Western Town
Chris was more than happy to show us the world he created with his own hands 10 years ago. He came to the area with no money at all and hinted at a rough life he hoped to leave behind. He managed to acquire this small bit of land and began building this dusty little "resort" with all the donated and discarded junk he could find.
I've seen plenty of created western towns in theme parks, but none had a church that was actually used. Chris took great pride showing us the church interior with donated pews and an alter.
There was a large painting of Big Bend National Park and a stained glass window created for him by a neighbor. But, I was most intrigued by the keyboard propped in the corner and the tambourine on the chair. He said they often gather here on Sundays or Wednesday evenings. I loved picturing the folks who might sit up in front and tap out a sweet rhythm to a hymn!
Chris was equally proud of the saloon with the satellite dish and propped up porch roof...heavy with sundried antlers and bones. The dirt and distant mountains made the whole thing seem like a movie set, but it was real. This isolated ranch, 25 miles from the Big Bend entrance is not a place we would have found on our own!
Pool and Booze
The felt on the tiny pool table was coated with a bit of dirt and the floor had a soft layer of sawdust. There were bottles of liquor and a table for cards and "Wi-fi!" Chris announced proudly. Chris said this was where people did a lot of hanging out, when they weren't around the campfire singing, or in the "Nine Point Social Club" where meals were served.
Bring Your Own Bedroll
The dogs happily trotted along as Chris showed a few choice cabins for $15.00 a night. He grinned pretty big to tell us they even had air-conditioning!
He reminded us to bring our own bedrolls and pillows next time we come.
This room had 2 sets of bunks. Nice for a family of 4! A vase with a couple flowers and a book...that I don't believe was the Bible.
We toured the bathhouse with an actual cowboy tub and a restroom with a real toilet. As we wandered, the wind began to gust and the temperature dropped in a matter of minutes. It was hard to imagine this place in summer when temps are in the 100s!
Thanks Cowboy Chris!
I could picture myself actually coming and spending a day or 2 just to find out more about you. I can't imagine living in such an isolated, dusty world! It seemed lonely to me, but you reminded us you had more friends than anyone in the world. You showed us the names of all your visitors autographed onto the beams holding up the ceiling in the Social Club. You showed us quirky gifts given to you by guests who have kept in contact with you. You obviously enjoy being surrounded by the memories of the people you've met over just these past 10 years. I don't know what your life was like before, but I'm so glad you discovered a life that suits you so well now!
To celebrate my birthday in April 2012, I decided to reflect on the past with a different kind of list. I've met a lot of people in my 55 years, but I'm going to stop and remind myself about the strangers I've met. These are people I met by accident, not through friends or work. For some reason, these strangers dropped into my life. Even though we may have only spent a few minutes together, these people have never been forgotten.
Each week, I'll spotlight someone I met in the past, who in some small way, made me stop and think.
Remember 55 Strangers