Saturday, April 30, 2016
This morning Nora and I spent an hour at the bank waiting to be helped with our five minute transaction. I will let our bank remain nameless and I won’t bore you with complaints, because this post isn’t about that. It’s about a conversation I had with an elderly black gentleman named Brother Orson while we waited. It makes no difference whether he’s black or white or anything else (as Brother Orson would tell you himself, “If things continue on the way they are, the world will soon be color-blind”), except that I want you to be able to picture this sweet man as accurately as possible. Nora and I had finally sat down in two of the four lobby chairs after already having waited for 15 minutes when Orson ambled over. Despite his having thick black glasses and walking a little slowly, I would have put him at about 55. But his first words to me were that he could remember when his great-granddaughter was Nora’s age.
“I was on Facebook the other day, and it told me she’s in junior high now! Makes me feel so old.” I told him he didn’t look that old, and he conceded, “That’s what they tell me.” He continued sharing, telling me he had two sons (one deceased) and one daughter. One of his sons been accepted on “a full boat ride” to a university, but after returning post-grad to his hometown, had been murdered by an angry person who said Orson’s son “thought he thought he was something special” for having gotten a college education. Orson moved gracefully past this admission so quickly that I second-guessed what I’d actually heard. He continued describing each of his grandchildren and finally his four great-grandchildren.
“When I hear my great-granddaughter and her friends talking down in Memphis where they’re from, you can’t hardly tell ‘em apart. Doesn’t matter what color they are, they all sound the same. That southern accent is thick as syrup. Yep, it’ll soon be a color-blind world if things continue the way they are. And that’s good, it’s real good how things are changing, except that kids these days don’t even know how to play double-dutch or tether-ball.”
From here we went on to discuss just about everything (like I said, we had a full hour). How Orson loves living far away from his grandkids so that he can show up and “give ‘em candy and make it rain,” then give them back to their parents. How in the South they fry everything, but everything tastes good. How, in his opinion, there’s no safer and better place in the world to raise your children than Spokane, but how Dolly’s Cafe is the only place in the whole city that serves grits. We talked a lot about food, actually. He described the way he was raised, how men would go out and work for two full hours before breakfast, but when they returned for breakfast there would be a spread of grits, biscuits and gravy, ham steaks, link sausage, corned beef hash and eggs. “Now,” he said with a healthy measure of disgust, “I have to eat greek yogurt, half a banana and half an english muffin for breakfast.”
He told me he was the oldest of seven kids, and that when he was a kid he not only knew how to play double-dutch and tether ball, but he knew how to braid hair and iron pleats. He said that in his childhood neighborhood, everyone watched out for each other and that his big German Shepherd was the neighborhood babysitter. “Parents would drop off their toddlers, some even still in diapers, on my front lawn; sometimes kids I didn’t even know would get dropped off, and my dog would just sit in the front lawn and watch ‘em. Everyone knew they could drop their kids off at our place.”
We didn’t just talk about him (although I was glad to listen because his stories were fascinating. I mean, a German Shepherd babysitter!?). He asked whether I liked to play sports, and I said no, the sportiest I’d gotten was playing golf in high school. “Well, you look like you could have been a cheerleader, holdin’ up some of those pom-pom things,” he said with a big smile. I just laughed and said no, but I told him about all the sports my kids love to play. He listened, then said, “You got it all going for you. You’re healthy, you’re beautiful, you’ve got three kids, a sense of humor, and I know you can cook!”
When he told me that he’d recently been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes (at which point the trade-off of grits to Greek yogurt made a lot more sense), I was able to share Nora’s story with him. After confirming that Nora’s type of diabetes couldn’t be fixed with diet and exercise and that she was on insulin, he said he was sorry for that, “but she’ll have an amazing testimony.” I smiled hugely, because that is one of the best responses I’ve heard from a stranger, and I said she sure will. When I told him my name was Hannah, he suggested I read 1 Samuel in my Bible to learn more about my name. I told him I had many times, and that I loved that story. He looked into my eyes and said, “Well, you’re living out the story of Hannah. You’re beautiful, you’re having children and re-populating the earth, and you know the Word of God.”
Let me tell you that coming from Brother Orson, a great-grandfather and (he later told me) a minister of a local church, those words were life to me. Even the slightly awkward part about re-populating the earth was a blessing that I received, because the ability to do so IS a blessing that I’ve so often taken for granted (No, this does not mean I’ll be having more children). I walked into the bank to do a simple transaction and I ended up spending an hour with a man who called me by name and affirmed my worth and calling.
So many times when I go into a store or business I try not to make eye contact, sometimes because I’m busy but mostly because I’m shy. Potentially awkward conversations are something to be avoided like head-lice, so I keep my eyes diverted and focus my attention on my children or on urgently cleaning out my purse (that one time a year when my children aren’t with me in public). But by bowing to my own introversion and caving to my fear of awkwardness, I also sacrifice many opportunities to love and be loved by others in my community. I sacrifice countless Brother Orson conversations. On a recent Sunday morning the pastor of my church said that “the love of God requires proximity.” The quote has haunted me just a little, because proximity means sharing space with others. It means making dreaded eye contact and sharing more than pleasantries and lingering awhile. And I’ll be honest, if Brother Orson hadn’t inserted himself into my space at that moment, our conversation never would have happened. If I hadn’t been forced to linger due to the less than stellar service of my bank, I never would have spent more than a couple of meaningless minutes with the man. And I would have been lesser for it.
So, if there are any more of you out there who are shy, or introverted, or just busy, I encourage you to slow down for just a minute next time you’re out. Be brave and lift up your eyes. There might be someone in front of you who God put there for a reason. I know, your purse is in bad need of re-organizing and your kids are dumping out all the sugars and coffee stirrers from their containers. But there might be some life to be shared with a person whose space you’re currently sharing. Proximity is scary, but the love of God requires it.