How to Gain Control: Is It Worth a Cup of Coffee?

Too often we lack control. We lead our lives, dodge traffic, defer to a boss. Others seem to own all the power, including the traffic signal which tells us when to go and when to stay put. Those whose affection we want (or want to keep) have conditions for that love, stated or not, something they (not we) determine. But, we can take initiative; and, in our action, alter the landscape, make a difference: get some control. Combat feelings of helplessness.

The man in the brief video above, Karim Sulayman, is likely to give you encouragement, something always needed. Encouragement to take a chance and take control. Once spurred by his praiseworthy example, what then? What will we — the two of us — do with the “feel good” experience he offers? Will we be touched, but return to our daily lives unchanged, inert? Do we believe our voice is too small, too weak, too distant from the levers of authority?

I offer six specific ways to take action and be effective. This is outside my usual role here, but what I am about to suggest is within the ability of virtually all of you to act on, if you believe action is required to fight the status quo: to give you hope and to do some good.

The cost of a “freshly brewed,” medium size (grande) coffee from Starbucks is estimated at $2.39 as of today, in Illinois, my home state in the USA. This amounts to 1.93 GBP or 2.2 Euros. Within the reach, I hope, of all of you reading this. Yes, I’m about to ask you to do something with the monetary equivalent of a cup of coffee: to serve the good of some portion of the world that needs your good and mine, and that we (you and I) need for our own good.

Here are six of the many organizations which would benefit from your coffee-sized donation:

Doctors Without Borders

Committee to Protect Journalists

Southern Poverty Law Center

National Resources Defense Council

Equal Justice Initiative

Reach Out and Read

Many of you, I’m sure, are already doing your part. Many of you, I’m sure, are taking control of what you can, both to further your personal growth and repair the world. For those who might fall into my audience for this post, however, the following:

Turning away is possible. It is easy to set this aside and intend to address the matter tomorrow.  Someone else will take care of the problem, we think. My little effort won’t make a difference.

Edmund Burke thought otherwise:

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

Thanks to my friend Rosaliene Bacchus, Three Worlds One Vision, who made me aware of Mr. Sulayman’s video.

The Examples We Leave Behind: A Christmas Story

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Funny what we remember. My wife recalls a long-ago winter day wearing high heels. A big deal for a 13 or 14-year-old young woman dressed in her holiday best for a Christmas celebration. But that isn’t why she remembers it. Instead, her recollection of stockings and hair styles is an incidental add-on to something more important — more emblematic — of how to live: her dad’s unspoken example of an honorable man in the midst of a storm: the storm of life and a brutal winter day.

December was unusually snowy. Well-organized teams of snow plows didn’t exist outside of Chicago. Aleta’s dad, Thomas Henek, thought it best they all take an early train to the family gathering in LaSalle, IL. The ride, he knew, would be safer than dealing with impassable downstate roads in the car. It might take more than an hour to get to Chicago’s Union Station, but at least everyone would be comfortable from there: a two-hour train ride to his mother-in-law’s home. Better than winding up in a ditch, he reasoned, with his 14 and 11-year-old daughters and his spouse Helen.

The gathering itself was unremarkable as my wife thinks back. Soon after their morning train ride, however, the snow began to fall again. When the Heneks made ready for the after dinner departure, they prepared for the worst. Grandma Grigalunas had no place for four extra bodies, and towns without a tourist trade and little manufacturing lacked motels: the unadorned life of a barely middle-class family in middle-twentieth-century America.

Events did not cooperate. All the Christmas celebrants on the route had taken the seats long before the Henek family arrived at the train. The downpour of the heavy white stuff slowed the steam engine’s progress. Past midnight, finally, Union Station in downtown Chicago appeared. Perhaps my wife remembers her high heels because she stood in them all the way. Everyone was beat. The trip — the second excursion of the day — the standing and the time of night had done what you might imagine.

“Wait inside. I’ll grab a cab for the trip home. Then I’ll signal you to come out,” said Tom. The unaffordable ride to the suburbs couldn’t be avoided. The plan made sense, as public transportation would be missing in action even were there no blizzard.

Only one problem. Other people from the station were waiting in the flesh-slicing wind, slush, cold, and falling snow. Accumulating precipitation, by now mounds of it, was everywhere. Almost all the cab drivers knew better than to make an extra buck late at night on such a day — a day they devoted to celebrating Christmas on their own. To the bone tired females inside, the clock was stuck in place, the time as heavy as the dense, wet-white on the ground outside.

Finally an empty cab! The man of the Henek house told the driver he first had to signal his family. They began to move out of the station when a young woman appeared near Mr. Henek. She was soaked-through, as was Tom. She held an infant in her arms and a preschool girl — herself dragging an overweight suitcase — by her hand.

Tom Henek was a man’s man, the best friend to countless buddies, the kind of person you could rely on when fate had you by the shoulders. He’d been a supply truck driver in hostile territory during World War II and lived through the blood spatter of his best friend in the passenger seat beside him, killed by a sniper.

If you knew Tom Henek you understood what he would do when the lady appeared.

Afraid for the baby, Mr. Henek offered the door while the mom and her charges entered the taxi, sent them off, and turned to look behind him.

A few feet away (it is true) one might have heard a bit of groaning. Yet everyone understood: understood who Mr. Henek was, what mattered in life, and what you should and should not do.

Back in the station once again, time was frozen like the weather outside; but the family did step into a cab after another hour. They couldn’t get home to Franklin Park soon enough.

I never knew Tom Henek. He died a couple years before I met Aleta. He was imperfect, as we all are. A gambling addiction didn’t help and a smoking addiction killed him in his 50s. Still, I’ve had the luck of knowing his daughters Aleta and Tomi — one the love of my life — and knowing him by who they are and who our children have become.

How do you measure a life? I wouldn’t even try. As William Bruce Cameron wrote, “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

To me, this half-century-old story is remarkable and unremarkable, all in one. In a time of great inhumanity, civility and nobility are kept alive by men and women like Tom Henek.

We should be proud to do half as well.

The top photo is called Miniskirts in a Snow Storm, February 10, 1969. It was sourced from the National Weather Service Collection, wea 00957 via Wikipedia Commons. This post adds some detail to one of the episodes of Mr. Henek’s life, as I wrote about it in 2014: Tom Henek’s life.

 

A Man Who Didn’t Give in: Sir Nicholas Winton

 

“I work on the motto that if something isn’t impossible, there must be a way of doing it.” So said Sir Nicholas Winton when asked how he saved the lives of 669 children. Sir Nicholas died yesterday at the age of 106. Before you give up on whatever challenge faces you, get to know his story. The video documentary (above) includes a 2014 interview of Winton. I wrote this essay in 2009: To Save One Life is to Save the World/

Making a Living in NY: Three Stories

Opportunity Makes a Thief

Thursday, January 31, 2013. Walking along Seventh Avenue at midday in Midtown Manhattan with my wife. In the next 45 minutes, I will learn a little more about how people earn a living; one way or another.

It is cold and blustery. The wind is at its nastiest, drying your skin to the point of irritation and cracking. We need to find a Starbucks to get out of the cold.

The street is busy and a young man appears on my left, offering me a CD. I take it, curious. He begins to walk with me. “This is our band. Say, where are you from?”

“Chicago.”

“Hey, let your friends know about us back in the Windy City. By the way, anything you can do to help the cause would be appreciated.”

Only after he says that do I realize that he is perhaps not even a musician, but even if he is, he is doing some version of what young men in Chicago did a few years ago when your car was stopped at a traffic light in the summertime. They carried squeegees, the kind that you use to get the dirt off your car windshield, and then they proceeded to do just that, quite uninvited, expecting that you would pay them something after they imposed this service.

I give the CD back. “Aw, hey man, I thought you were my brother by another mother!”

I laugh at the pitchman’s good-natured joke. I laugh because he is a few decades younger than I, which makes our literal “brotherhood” unlikely. Then, there is the fact that he is black and I’m white. In an instant he is gone, looking for another customer.

We find a Starbucks, get warm drinks, and grab a table. It is a small establishment, one manned by young baristas and filled with a youthful crowd. My back is to the counter. The door is only a few steps away on my left. Not a big place.

A slim, dishwater blonde young woman, early 30s, sits to my right, looking bored. She raises her voice and speaks toward the counter. “He’s taking your tip jar.” There is no reaction from anyone. She repeats it to the baristas: “He’s taking you tip jar.”

My wife saw only a little of what happened, but I ask her to tell me what she can: “A twenty-something man, tall and slender, walked in about a minute ago. He was standing off to the side of the counter, close to the transparent jar that held gratuities from the customers.”

Apparently, the thief wore a long, flowing coat and proceeded to do a few dance-like moves, including a pirouette. Just when people determined he was odd and started to ignore him — at the instant that the cashier moved away from her station, he grabbed the jar and bolted toward the door, which was only perhaps 15 feet away. By the time that the dishwater blonde female alerted the staff, the miscreant was through the exit.

The small number of employees are heard talking behind me. “What happened?” says one. “A guy took our tips,” responds another. “How much was there?” “I think I saw about $18 in bills plus some change.” More muttering. Business is back to usual almost immediately. The customers drink and the baristas serve.

Freeze the tape. Stop reading for a moment and think about what I’ve just told you. Imagine that you are a customer in the coffee shop.

MurderToGoLOGO

I just wanted you to envision the scene as if you were there and discover whether any thoughts or feelings came to mind. They did to at least one person in the establishment. Back to the story.

On my left is a middle-aged couple. Social status is impossible to determine with everyone so bundled-up. The couple is talking quietly for a few minutes after the crime. The male has anonymous facial features, the kind of person who, when you see him in a crowd, the crowd stands out. The kind of person whose visage would be impossible to recall even if you spent 20 minutes in his presence. The kind of person who is known only by what he does and says, not by appearances.

The gentleman stands, goes to the cash register, and gets the attention of the woman who seems to be in charge.

“How much did you lose?

“I don’t know.”

“Well, here’s $20. Be sure you put it in a safe place.”

I turn to see the moon-faced manager smiling as she takes the bill and says, “Thank you. You didn’t have to do that.”

The man sits back down and resumes his conversation, intent on finishing his drink.

I lean over and turn toward him: “That was nice of you. Why did you do it?”

“Hey, they don’t make that much money here and I can spare it. They probably can’t afford the drinks they serve without a discount. No big deal. When I’m dying, I won’t be kicking myself and thinking, ‘Boy, I wish I had that $20 back.'”

My wife and I leave to resume our walk.

Within a couple of blocks we spy a dark-haired man in his early 20s. He seems oblivious to the cold or perhaps is so numb he no longer cares. I’m thinking that he is used to being in the street, perhaps homeless. Wrong He sports a cardboard sign: “Need money for weed.”

In another block we pass someone who is a good deal older, a white-bearded, scruffy looking guy whose sign reads a bit differently: “Need money for pot, pizza, or beer.”

“Well, at least he is giving us a choice of which cause to support,” I say to my wife. “I guess he has more experience in this sort of thing than the younger guy.”

What does it cost to live in NYC? According to the Living Wage Project, in 2012 you needed to make at least $11.86 per hour in order to survive in Manhattan, though the minimum wage is $7.25. My guess is you didn’t live very well (or alone) on your $11.86, because the Center for an Urban Future reported in 2009 that a person who made $60,000 per year in the Big Apple was living the equivalent level of prosperity that attached to a wage of $26,092 in Atlanta. An annual salary of $123,322 got you the standard of living of someone earning $50,000 in Houston.

Baristas, street people, a pitchman and a thief, all trying to make a buck or take a buck. And one man who had a buck and tried to help. A man of forgettable appearance who you will remember.

The top painting is the 1896 painting Opportunity Makes a Thief by Paul-Charles Chocarne-Moreau. The second image is the work of Murdertogo. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Most Remarkable Person I Ever Met

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You probably wouldn’t notice her if you passed her on the street.

It’s not that she isn’t attractive, but it is an attractive middle-age — no competition for her younger, “knock-out” self.

But if you did happen to look closely, the thing that you’d see would be the kindness in her face: a most uncommon capacity for affection, forgiveness, and grace.

She is perhaps the most extraordinary person I’ve ever met; someone with terrible luck, especially early on, but an emotional generosity that would cause even a sceptic to believe that humanity just might come out on the side of the angels, after all.

Her mother was, of all things, a social worker. But whatever mom knew about social work, she forgot as soon as she came home. Her youngest — my patient (let’s call her Maggie) — was an active, pretty little girl.

Could mom have been jealous?

Mother favored Maggie’s older brother, (let’s call him Tom) a beefy, muscular giant of a young man who was his high school’s resident athlete and hero early, turned bully and trouble maker late. By 14 he was a drug addict, which only fueled an already unbridled, violent streak. That quality initially made him a boxing and wrestling powerhouse, before it made him an ungovernable monster.

But he was clever, only beating on his sister when his folks were at work or away, usually careful not to leave marks that couldn’t be passed off as his sister’s clumsiness. When Maggie complained to mom, mom sided with her male child. And when teachers saw this young girl looking distracted and downcast, unable to concentrate and lost in daydreams, they just thought about how unruly her older brother was, and assumed that his sister practiced a less overt form of disobedience and disrespect.

What about dad? He was a decent, but weak man. While he sympathized with his daughter and believed her stories about Tom (in part because he once — just barely — prevented Maggie’s death by strangulation), dad’s own alcoholism made him an inadequate advocate and defender. Moreover, his job took him out-of-town for days at a time. And when he wasn’t there, Maggie was an easier target for her mother’s verbal abuse, mom’s claims that she lied about Tom, and brother’s use of Maggie as a punching bag.

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The family was divided into opposing camps. Mother held the metaphorical whip-hand, angry at her husband for his weakness and addiction, angry at her daughter for her beauty and closeness to dad. Tom became almost a substitute marital partner for Maggie’s mom, without the sex. He was the one she admired and did things for. He was the one she protected. He was the one she believed, no matter how preposterous his stories were.

Maggie lived in fear of her own death at the hands of a drug-crazed brother, terrified of standing up to people and voicing opinions that might be criticized, and desperate for affection and safety. She learned to follow orders.

Not surprisingly, as she got older she drifted into her own alcohol abuse and escape from reality; and into relationships with men who initially looked to be protective, but inevitably turned out to be unkind at best, abusive and selfish at worst.

Her therapy process was a long one. She needed to grieve the events of her childhood: the weakness and death of her father, rage and weep over the abuse she suffered, grapple with a mother who was no mother, and a brother who was a criminal and her tormentor. Maggie had to learn how to value herself more highly and stand-up for herself more routinely.

Meanwhile, Tom’s life of antisocial behavior eventually became impossible for even Maggie’s mother to deny. He spent time in prison when he wasn’t ripping-off friends and associates, selling drugs, and abusing his own wife and children. The children came to hate him. And in middle-age, the combination of 40 years of drug abuse and diabetes began to show. Increasingly isolated and alone, he reached out to the sister who had finally gotten him out of her life.

By now Maggie and her mother were closer, the same mother who all but trained her son to go after Maggie like an attack dog. To some extent mom apologized. And when the mother became infirm, Maggie cared for her.

Now Maggie confronted Tom. No longer the bully, he had become a man in a more dependent position. Tom had almost no friends, lived alone in poverty, and received subsidies from the state to pay for his medical needs, groceries, and rent.

His diet ignored the encroaching diabetes and its increasing claim of his lower extremities, to the point of becoming wheel chair-bound. Much of his money still went to drugs. Every day meant another chance — a requirement, a necessity — to score. His government check came at the beginning of the month so that by month’s end, having purchased drugs to remain high for as much time as possible as soon as possible, he had little to pay for food.

Maggie confronted her brother with his physical abuse. He told her that he had no recollection of it, but didn’t say that he disbelieved her. Indeed, Tom said that he knew she wasn’t lying, but blamed the drugs for his lack of memory. Was he lying? Was Tom in denial himself? Or had the drug-induced haze of his teens given way to a drug-generated brain damage that genuinely robbed him of his ability to recall those events that she remembered so painfully?

With the mother’s death, Maggie’s brother was the only surviving close family member. And, in his distress, the most extraordinary thing happened. Maggie was kind to him, affectionate, and tried her best to help him make his life less miserable, a life that represented the just deserts for his misanthropy and criminality.

For the most part, Maggie no longer put-up with her brother’s crap. She challenged his lies, sometimes going as much as a year without talking to him because of his persistent abuse of his own body and reluctance to put himself in treatment for his addiction.

But, when they did have contact, she was able to laugh with him and worry about him and feel sorry for him. Not because he had earned any of this, but simply because her basic human decency and loving nature could not do otherwise. When he had surgeries, she always came to his bedside, even though she lived in another state.

Inexplicably, whatever lingering anger Maggie had for her sibling vanished. She had come to see him as someone who was in the grip of an addiction that was costing him his life, but no longer capable of doing anything to free himself.

At the end, when Tom’s organs started to fail, he called her and let her know that the doctors said he would be dead in a matter of days. She traveled again to the in-hospital death vigil. Even Tom’s children wanted no part of him by this time. And, for two weeks, Maggie (nearly bankrupt herself) lived in a motel near the medical facility and spent each day and evening at Tom’s bedside, ministering to the brother who had tormented her and crushed her; holding his hand and soothing him in whatever way she could.

Near the time of his death, nurses and staff came up to Maggie individually and made a simple request: “May I hug you?” Maggie embraced each of them as they told her that they had never before seen the kind of devotion and cheerful tenderness that they’d witnessed in those two weeks of Maggie’s shining presence at Tom’s mattress-grave.

“We see so many families that can’t seem to be bothered, that call and ask whether the relative is still alive, that just can’t bear it or don’t take the time.”

The hospital staff saw Maggie as extraordinary. And they didn’t even know her history of abuse or that the man who lay dying was Maggie’s abuser.

And when her brother died, Maggie wept for him.

You may be asking, how can all this be explained?

I know that I would not have behaved as admirably as Maggie did.

In trying to understand it for myself, here is the best I’ve been able to do.

First, I must eliminate two explanations. Maggie’s behavior was not a function of some deep-seated and thoroughly-considered study of moral philosophy. She was not an abstract thinker, steeped in the world of ancient wisdom and people like Socrates, Epictetus, and Kant; but lived instead in the real world of practicality and daily challenges.

Nor was this woman very religious. Thus, her actions didn’t spring from reliance on holy text, a profoundly held belief in God, or even something as simple as church attendance, which she had long since given up.

No, the best I can do is to say that some few people like Maggie are just “good.” Not the kind of good that is relatively convenient. Not the kind that gives money to charity or volunteers at the soup kitchen, as “good” as those actions are. They are good at a level that confounds understanding — so good “by nature” and by choice that they don’t seem bound by man-made rules, expectations, or necessities.

They are the kind of people who put their lives at risk to save strangers and then think nothing of it and never say a word about it. It is as if their brains and their hearts don’t work as they do for all the rest of us.

In a funny way, they are alien — as if from another world.

Certainly a better world, if such a place exists.

When I tell you that being a therapist is privilege, in part, it is because it has allowed me to know just a few people like this.

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The top photo, Caring Hands, is described as follows: “An Iraqi girl from the Janabi Village waits in line with her dad to be examined by an Iraqi doctor, Yusufiyah, Iraq, March 02, 2008. The Medical Operation was conducted by U.S. Soldiers from Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division and the Sons of Iraq (Abna al-Iraq).” The U.S. Army photo was taken by Spc. Luke Thornberry.

The next photo, also from 2008, is called A Caring Mom, taken by  A Frank Wouters.

The final image is Helping the Homeless by Ed Yourdan. The author writes:

This was taken about halfway up the block on the east side of Broadway, between 79th and 80th Street (in New York City). It’s at the north end of the “Filene’s Basement” store on the corner, and it’s a place where I’ve often seen homeless people holding up a sign that asks for assistance…

With very rare exceptions, I haven’t photographed these homeless people; it seems to me that they’re in a very defensive situation, and I don’t want to take advantage of their situation. But something unusual was happening here: the two women (who were actually cooperating, and acting in tandem, despite the rather negative demeanor of the woman on the left) were giving several parcels of food to the young homeless man on the right.

I don’t know if the women were bringing food from their own kitchen, or whether they had brought it from a nearby restaurant. But it was obviously a conscious, deliberate activity, and one they had thought about for some time…

What was particularly interesting was that they didn’t dwell, didn’t try to have a conversation with the young man; they gave him the food they had brought, and promptly walked away. As they left, I noticed the young man peering into his bag (the one you see on the ground beside him in this picture) to get a better sense of the delicious meal these two kind women had brought him…

All three images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

“Being There” for Children and Others: On the Elusiveness of a Moral Life

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Important life choices don’t always announce themselves.

No brass band stands at-the-ready, playing a fanfare to let you know that you are about to do something right or wrong.

That is, perhaps, why most of us believe we are “good people” regardless of the evidence. After Auschwitz, it’s pretty easy for us to rationalize or minimize our participation in anything less awful than that.

We rarely lose the best of ourselves in a moment of operatic drama, but in the thousands of little things that go unmarked and unnoticed in the course of every day.

Morality and decency are worn away an inch at a time; and gained in just the same painstaking way.

Let me tell you about a good man.

The father of a little girl.

He is divorced and cherishes every moment with his daughter. But, his work is demanding, sometimes requires travel, and he has significant payments to his ex-wife specified by his divorce settlement; so money must be made.

A business trip had been scheduled for some time, but two days before it he was told that his child would be one of the kids receiving some special attention at a grade school evening event; one of many such events that a parent is asked to attend, whether it be a band concert, an orchestra performance, a play, or a small honor of some kind.

A few are terrific and wonderful, but most are a matter of “being there,” despite what often amounts to the dreadful boredom of  50 squeaky violins and the butt-breaking, back-breaking pain of hard-wood gym risers as you listen and watch, already exhausted from your day at work.

This man does everything he can to support his little girl. And, mindful that his “ex” is more than a little self-involved, he tries to make up for what she cannot or does not know to give.

Still, money must be made.

As he sat alone in his hotel room on the trip’s first night, he realized — perhaps a bit late — that he was in the wrong place.

That his clients could wait.

That his daughter was more important.

That it mattered more to be with her than away from her.

He reorganized everything, cancelled meetings for the next two days, and changed his flight plans.

It cost him money and time.

A happy ending?

Not exactly.

The next day’s weather was bad, he spent hours in the airport, and he didn’t get back into his home town until just after his daughter’s event occurred.

It was frustrating, but he was able to take her out for an ice cream cone and a small celebration of her recognition when the assembly ended.

No proclamation came his way, certainly no acknowledgement from his divorced partner, and probably not even an indelible memory for his child, since our protagonist didn’t mention what he had to do in order to try to attend.

Of course, money does have to be made.

And, martyring yourself for your child’s welfare isn’t healthy either.

Life is like the work of a seamstress: the fabric we stitch of small moments, rarely acknowledged, soon forgotten, but leaving a pattern behind.

Things like whether we hold a door open for someone else, give the homeless person some change, use the word “we” instead of “I,” and the like.

Things like hand-writing a “thank you,” bending down to pick up someone’s fallen package, or giving up a seat on the subway to a senior citizen.

Things like being there for your children, your friends, and even those tourists who look confused.

In 2002, on a street corner in a moderate-sized German town, my wife, youngest daughter, and I were those people; who were aided by a man driving in his car who could see our perplexity, spontaneously parked the vehicle, and walked up and down a couple of blocks over a period of 20 minutes to help us locate a very hard-to-find address.

If it doesn’t cost you something it might be just a little too easy.

The “Three Stooges” used to say, “one for all, all for one, and every man for himself!”

Let’s hope not.

Today is another day. Lots of chances to live by the Golden Rule.

Twenty-four hours of opportunities to put your humanity and integrity over your convenience and advantage.

Will you see those chances? Will you rationalize those opportunities away? Will you be a better person at the end of the day than when the day begins?

No revelations, just the thousands of tiny events that make up a life.

Make a life worth living, not just a living.

The above poster was issued by the United States Government Printing Office during World War II. The image is called Freedom From Fear and originally appeared in the March 13, 1943 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. The painter is Normal Rockwell. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The oil painting is one of four that Rockwell based on the “four freedoms” mentioned by President Franklin Roosevelt in his January 6, 1941 State of the Union Address: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The posters that used Rockwell’s images were intended to remind the country of what it was fighting for in the war against the Axis powers. The same four freedoms were to become part of the charter for the United Nations.

Searching for Sanctuary and the Kindness of Strangers

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Sometimes it is the next door neighbor or the checkout lady at the store. Sometimes it is a friend’s mom or dad. Sometimes it is an aunt or an uncle, a grandparent or a teacher.

Their role is to provide a glimmer of hope, kindness, and a little bit of the love that by rights should come from the parent, but doesn’t; just enough to make life tolerable; just enough to get the child through the bitterness of life at home with some small sense of self-worth and the hope that the future might be better.

Benign and caring adults are remembered all your life, even if you passed through a less than dire childhood.

I can recall two men in my own life who showed kindness and an interest in me, whose connection felt good to me, who offered respect and seemed to enjoy the times that we talked. One would play catch with me on occasion, something I dearly treasured because my father was often at work. Mr. Maddock, our next door neighbor, was a handsome man with two sons of his own, but always had a good word and took the time to say it.

Another, Bob Hanel’s dad, a man tall and slender, talked baseball with me when he walked down the alley with his small dog. “Such a big man and such a small dog,” I remember thinking. He was blond, like his crew cut son. The younger Hanel, my older buddy Bob, became a dentist, I believe.

And, now that I think of it, there was the owner of a soda shop/candy store on Lincoln Avenue near Washtenaw, Mr. Sharon, who was loved by all the kids who frequented his establishment. A roundish and white-haired man with a warm and soothing manner, and a ready smile. He called me “son,” a common mode of address from a “stranger” to a male child in the ’50s and ’60s that implied a certain kind of protective relationship between a man and a boy.

A heart condition eventually laid Mr. Sharon low and he had to sell the store.

Ironic that his heart should have caused him trouble, because — for me at least  — his heart was the best part of him.

I’m sure that adults who fill this saving role in the lives of troubled kids think nothing of what they are doing. They probably don’t know how tough it is for the child.

Parents usually succeed in hiding these things from the public. The household ethic is to keep up appearances. And the warning is never to talk about what happens inside the house while out of the house. Most children keep to this admonition, honoring the parents’ concern for reputation over reality, not wishing to disappoint mom or dad by an act that would be considered disloyal.

So much can be achieved for kids like this, just by being stable, smiling, asking a question, offering a cookie or a soft drink.

It means the world:

My last name begins with the letter “M.” Jane’s begins with “N,” so she sat behind me in the first grade. We lived just a block from each other. We became friends.

The first time I was allowed to go to Jane’s house, I was amazed at how different it was from my home.

Janes’s mother was out of bed, dressed, made meals, did laundry, cleaned their home and took Jane and her siblings places outside their house. I felt terribly sorry for them. Everyone knew that moms were supposed to lay in bed all day and give orders!

Making meals, cleaning, laundry, etc. were what the maid did. They didn’t even have a maid!

As I later realized, my mom’s illnesses were the kind that no doctor could diagnose, nor persuade my mother that they did not exist.

My family had more money that Jane’s. In retrospect, it must have been a hardship to keep feeding me, year after year, yet Mrs. N never even hinted that I should go home. Not even once.

Jane’s father came home every evening and had dinner with the family. Very strange. I wondered why he wasn’t always at work like my dad.  Jane’s father wasn’t all that fond of my omnipresence, however.

I’m guessing Mrs. N never let him tell me to go away.

Over the years, Jane and I became inseparable. We spent almost every waking moment together. We  did this at Jane’s house, rarely at mine. My home was bigger — had more room and more quiet. Neither one of us wanted to be there, although it was never discussed, simply understood. We played at her house, we ate dinner at her house, every weekend I slept at her house. This went on from age seven to approximately age 16.

During all this time, I never realized what a gift Mrs. N was to me. It was only much later that I came to understand that this woman probably saved me. I had a safe place to go. I had a place where no one criticized me. Where people were alive, not constantly “dying.” It was a relief not to be in the tomb I called home.

My mother believed that if something was easy for her, it should automatically be easy for me. One day she wanted me to swallow a Coricidin capsule. I couldn’t. My usually “bed-ridden” mother chased me around the house trying to force me to swallow. At last I was backed into a corner in the kitchen and told that I was going to swallow that pill or “I am going to know the reason why!”

It wasn’t a pretty day. Pill swallowing was enormously difficult for me. I don’t remember if I ever got that pill down.

As soon as I could, I fled to Jane’s house. Mrs. N made no comment about the incident. I’m not sure if it was then or a little later she suggested that if I put a tablet in a little applesauce, it might make it easier to swallow. It worked and mother never gave me grief about pills again.

As a young adolescent, I would run away from home, usually leaving in the middle of the night. I’d walk the streets of our neighborhood. Eventually, I’d head for Jane’s house and climb in the front window.

The first time this happened, Mrs. N was up waiting for me. My mother had called her looking for me. Somehow Jane’s mom knew that I’d show up at her house. She immediately called my mother, who had called the police. Mrs. N then said she would put me to bed with Jane.

For a couple of years, I ran away a lot. The police told my mother not to call them anymore. Eventually, she stopped noticing that I was gone. So, when I was ready to come back, I’d just crawl in through the window in Jane’s house, not my own. Mrs. N let me.

No critical comments.

She never, ever told me I was a bad kid who should stay home.

She never told me not to do it.

She simply accepted me.

On rare occasions, she would very subtly say something that led me to believe she didn’t approve of the way my family treated me. However, she never put down anything my family did.

Twice a year my father would take me shopping for seasonal clothes, to up-scale stores like Marshall Fields and Saks Fifth Avenue.  I had nicer clothes and many more of them than Jane and her siblings.  When, on occasion, Mrs N would be taking Jane and her other children shopping for clothes, she took them to what we called “schlock shops.” Basically, these were the counterparts of today’s Loehmann’s.

She would take me also. I wonder if she knew how wonderful it was to have a woman’s point of view and a “family” experience?

Mrs N never said a word, really. There was just her unending acceptance. I actually thought it was normal, unremarkable. After all, Jane and I were best friends. She never let me believe that I was getting anything special.

Mrs. N allowed me to be in every part of her family life throughout my entire childhood. I never wondered, until this very minute, if she loved me.  Perhaps so. Perhaps not. I was not exactly a lovable child. Yet, she saved me. I don’t know if she did it consciously. Although I think she knew how desperately I needed her.

The years went by. Jane moved out-of-state. The only time I saw Mrs. N was when Jane came home for a visit with her husband, and later, their children. Once again, I fell back into Jane’s family. I hung-out at Mrs. N’s house whenever I could. She was still welcoming and accepting.

When I got married I asked Jane to be the matron of honor in our very small wedding. My husband and I had no plans after the ceremony. The next thing I knew, there was a luncheon following — given by Mrs. N at her home.

Mrs. N died a while ago. In adulthood, I often tried to tell her she saved me and how much I had come to appreciate her. She pooh-poohed me. Yet, she was always there for me, without my really knowing it.

That, I think, was the greatest gift of all.

The above image is I Wait, an 1872  photo of Rachel Gurney by Julia Margaret Cameron, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.