On my way to the Heartland and back again, every ordinary thing seemed extraordinary – especially all the people just off the state highways, folks you might consider unremarkable if you weren’t paying attention.
I had to drive to the Midwest a week ago to take care of some long-deferred family business that had to do with making sure that everyone in my large, extended family would have sufficient means and care to survive the exponentially increasing challenges of aging: housing, basic income, medical needs, social and familial support.
It was an unprecedented event in my sprawling clan, and I, naively, had not anticipated how complicated it would be to get seven siblings – and their spouses and children and grandchildren – to agree on individually suited plans. The difficult quickly became almost impossible – especially since some had planned ahead more effectively and others needed, or would need, more help to get by as time wears on and the debilitating impacts of growing older impose more and more demands.
We got through it – though not everything got decided or resolved – and I found the whole endeavor moving, touching and often troubling.
And then for me, there was the matter of the drive halfway across the continent, from Maine to Michigan and back again. It was a trip I hadn’t made in more than 20 years, though I had tried on several occasions, only to have cardiac interruptions frustrate my plans.
This time I kept my trip secret from all but one of my siblings, only making an announcement that I would be arriving after I had cleared Buffalo.
The golden retriever came with me, succumbing for a few days to intestinal problems that probably had to do mostly with the complete and unexpected upheaval in her routine. She had never ridden in the car for 12 or 14 hours at a stretch, had never stayed in a motel and had never seen the vast stretches of fresh water in Lake Erie and Lake Michigan.
I was desperate by the time I reached Cleveland to get my hands on hamburger and rice, the standard treatment for intestinal distress in dogs. But though I was able to buy the ingredients at an upscale food emporium, I couldn’t quite figure out how to get them cooked.
I went to the store’s deli and watched the several women working there, selected one who appeared likely to be a “dog person” and explained my problem. Helping me, I told her, would be aiding a 14-week-old golden retriever who was suffering, in part from her irritable digestive tract but also from the shame of not being able to control herself as (she already understood at her young age) she should.
The woman, who had lost her Newfie at 14 just last year, took the ingredients, hustled across the store and used a low-voltage microwave to cook hamburger and bags of Success rice.
The Good Samaritan was anxious about her boss discovering her transgression of ordinary rules in order to get a little golden back on track. But she did it anyway.
I did my part to add to the camaraderie and chaos, managing to break the middle toe of my left foot – exactly as the puppy had done to herself two weeks earlier, forging that infamous inability of golden retrievers and their owners to maintain clear boundaries.
Then, there was the merchant at an optical store in Holland, Mich., who fixed my glasses for free by stripping a side piece from other broken specs and soldering them to mine, enabling me to drive at night more safely – a skill that turned out to be imperative during the monsoon that hit Buffalo just as I was making my way through town on Halloween.
While the optical specialist was busy redeeming my battered glasses, I wandered through the store until I found a collection of “antler pens” crafted by a Muskegon, Mich., man, Rob Steiner. My first thought had been to buy one for my brother and one for myself as a sort of daily symbol of the sibling bond between us. But his wife loved the one I had planned to keep, so I thought it better to celebrate their bond – a marriage of 45 years.
The store owner sold them for 30 percent or more off the original price – though there was no reason to do it other than to enable me to give a gift to a brother who already seems to have everything.
A realtor with whom I had worked for more than three years to find a house in Holland ferried me all over west Michigan to look for a retirement home. I am the sibling farthest away, and I have been selected as the person my siblings consider the best, first domino to fall to bring the whole family circle back to the hometowns of my father and mother – now long dead.
But the realtor and I never found the right combination of qualities for a good dwelling. For all her work, she never made a dime – or expressed a single complaint.
Every waitress – from a little breakfast nook in Utica, N.Y., to Savory’s Deli in Hamburg, N.Y. – were upbeat and seemed quite literally delighted to have a job many would term tedious at best.
None of the many people who worked with me over several days had to go beyond the requirements of their jobs, but each did – and extravagantly – just because that is who they are and, it should be noted, they are Midwesterners – or at least upstate New Yorkers.
Amid much discouraging news out of state and federal governments, and all the greed and indifference we hear about or observe, the acts of kindness from strangers that I experienced were like miracles to me.
I mention them only to say this: People notice and cherish generosity and basic goodness in others, as much as they resent being overlooked or dismissed in a thousand little ways every day.
I felt intense gratitude and an almost atavistic civic pride in the people of the “uncultured, unsophisticated center” of the nation.
The kind of commitment to decency I witnessed matters more than we can ever know. The strength of these gestures can determine the quality of the day for everyone touched by joy the first two persons forged.
You don’t have to believe in random acts of kindness to experience one; you don’t have to go the extra mile to discover a complete stranger who will.
Tender mercies happen when you least expect them – for example, at midnight, on the last exit before the throughway, when the needle of the gas gauge is on “E” and someone in a farmhouse not only offers directions but asks if you need any other help.
Not all our reasons for trusting one another have been robbed from us. Try it; you’ll see.
North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:email@example.com