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Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Unexpected Answer

When you pray for something, be prepared for .....
By Barbara Bartocci
From Nov 1984 Reader's Digest (Pages 89-91)

It was an ordinary day five years ago. I was looking at greeting cards, hunting for a birthday wish for my husband. Suddenly I laughed aloud at one card. "Sweet-heart," it read, "you're the answer to my prayers." And inside: "You're not what I prayed for exactly, but apparently you're the answer."

Only the night before, I had said in exasperation, "Honestly, Bill, you're sure not the husband I once dreamed about."

He had grinned and hugged me. "But I'll bet our marriage is better than you ever imagined."

I took the card home. While I wrapped Bill's gift, I thought about all the times when it seemed as if my prayers had gone unanswered.

As a little girl, I prayed that my father would settle our family in the small town where my grand-parents lived. He was a military officer and I loved him, but we moved so often! I yearned to put down roots.

Yet how often, as a grownup, had I said, "I'm so glad for my childhood! I learned so much, living all those places."

When my first husband died, I had three young children to raise. My hopes centered on a job as a writer in Washington, DC. But the job offer didn't come. Instead, a midwestern greeting-card company invited me to join its staff.

Not what I prayed for exactly, I thought, but if I hadn't moved here, I would never have met Bill. And what a difference he had made in my life and in the children's.

At our birthday dinner that night, Bill laughed loudly when he read his card. He, too, remembered our earlier conversation. "Not bad," he said, grinning. "This card carries some pretty profound wisdom."

Not long after that, our daughter came home from high school, looking happy but puzzled. "Remember how awful I felt when I didn't get the part in the school play?"
Of course we remembered! Bill and I had ached for her.
A smile blossomed. "Well, I've been asked to go with the debating team to the out-of-state tournament. I've wanted to do that for three years! Isn't it strange? If I'd gotten the part in the play, I couldn't go."

Bill and I looked at each other. "Not what I prayed for exactly ...," he began. "But apparently the answer!" we said together.

Later that same year, Bill's young consulting business received an unusual offer. Bill was asked to take an 18-month assignment in a small town four hours away. For a struggling new business, it seemed like the answer to a prayer - except that Bill would have to live there.

What should we do? We drove to the town, a tiny community with 4000 people. Allison would be a senior in the fall. Bravely, she said: "It's okay. I can change schools."

But my job was challenging and rewarding. Could I afford to leave? And what about the boys? Our son John was starting high school; Andy was a shy seventh-grader.

Bill and I anguished over our decision. In tears one night, I went driving and wound up in a small church: Bill needs this work, but is it worth the upheaval to move? What should we do?

When I woke up the next morning, I felt surprisingly peaceful. "I think you should take the job, Bill. But the children and I will stay here."

He looked at me carefully. "That's not what I prayed for exactly ......"

For the first time in days, I smiled. "But apparently it's the answer."

And it was the answer, although not an easy one. When the project ended six months early, we were grateful that we hadn't uprooted our family.

Over the next few years, at different times, many things each of us wanted to happen, didn't. But inside our family, the code phrase would then emerge: "It's not what I prayed for exactly ....."

Then, early last fall, Bill took a long-distance call. He turned to me, his voice holding the unnatural calm of deep fear. "Your father's been taken into surgery. There's severe heart damage."

Daddy! So ill? Oh dear God, please let him live, I prayed as Bill rushed me to the airport.

My mother said nothing when I walked into the hospital waiting room. We simply held each other silently. Sitting beside her, I prayed as I had never prayed before. Please let him live.

For three weeks, my mother and I kept our vigil. My father regained consciousness, and one special morning he squeezed my hand. But though his heart stabilized, other problems developed.

Whenever I wasn't with my father or mother, I would sit in the hospital chapel. Always, my prayer was the same: Please let Daddy live.

Get-well cards arrived from everywhere. One evening, I got a card from Bill. I tore open the envelope. It was "our" card, with this message to me added inside: "Have faith in God's answer, darling."

My mother couldn't understand why I stood in her kitchen clutching a crumpled card, alternately laughing and crying. But what Bill had helped me realize was that I'd been praying all wrong.

The next morning, I sat quietly in the hospital chapel. Dear God, I prayed, I know what I would like. But that may not be the best answer for my Daddy. You love him too. So now I release him into your hands. Not my will, but thy will be done.

In that moment, I felt as if a burden had lifted from my shoulders. Whatever God's answer, I knew it would be the right one for my father.

During the next two weeks, Daddy's condition was up one day and down the next. Then, on my mother's birthday, October 24, 1983, he died.

Bill arrived the next day with the children. "I didn't want Grand-daddy to die," sobbed Andy. "Why did he die?"

I held him close and let him cry. Through the window, I could see the mountains and crystal-blue sky. I thought of my much-loved father and the years of helpless invalidism he might have had to endure. And with Bill's hand on my shoulder, I softly replied: "Apparently, it was the answer."

Monday, August 08, 2005

I'll Never Forget You

They were an ordinary pair caught in an ordinary world where convention means more than a meeting of souls

by Ray Bradbury
From Mar 1983 Reader's Digest (Pages 92-96)

When Ann Taylor came to teach at Green Town Central, it was the summer of her 24th birthday and it was the summer when Bob Spaulding would turn 14. She was that teacher for whom all the children wanted to bring huge oranges or pink flowers. She always seemed to be passing by on days when the shade was green under then tunnels of oaks and elms. She was the fine peaches of summer in the snow of winter, and she was cool milk for cereal on a hot early-June morning. And those rare few days in the year when the climate was balanced as fine as a leaf between winds that blew just right, those were the days like Ann Taylor, and should have been so named on the calendar.

As for Bob Spaulding he was the cousin who walked alone through town on any October evening with a pack of leaves after him like a horde of Halloween mice. Or you would see him, like a slow white fish in the tart waters of the Fox Hill Creek, baking brown - or hear his voice in those treetops where the wind entertained, dropping down hand by hand, and there would come Bob Spaulding to sit alone and look at the world.

That first morning when Miss Ann Taylor entered and wrote her name on the board, the schoolroom seemed suddenly flooded with illumination, as if the roof had moved back. Bob Spaulding sat with a spitball hidden in his hand, but let it drop. After class, he brought in a bucket of water and began to wash the boards. "What's this?" She turned to him from her desk, where she had been correcting spelling papers.
"The boards are kind of dirty. I suppose I should have asked permission," he said, halting uneasily.
"I think we can pretend you did," she replied, smiling, and at this smile he finished the boards in a burst of speed and pounded the erasers so furiously that the air was full of snow, it seemed.

The next morning he happened by the place where she took board and room just as she was coming out to walk to school.
"Well, here I am," he said.
"And do you know," she said, "I'm not surprised."
"May I carry your books?" he asked.
"Why, thank you, Bob."

They walked for a few minutes and he said nothing. She glanced over and slightly down at him and saw how at ease he was, how happy he seemed. When they reached the edge of the school ground, he said, "I better leave you here. The other kids wouldn't understand."
"I'm not sure I do, either," said Miss Taylor.
"Why, we're friends," said Bob with a natural honesty.
'Bob--" she started to say. "Never mind." She walked away.

And there he was in class and there he was after school for the next two weeks, never speaking, quietly washing the boards while she worked, and there was the silence of the sun going down in the slow sky, and the rustle of papers and the scratch of a pen. Sometimes the silence would go on until almost five, when Miss Taylor would find Bob in the last seat, waiting.
"Well, it's time to go home," Miss Taylor would say. And he would run and fetch her hat and coat. Then they would walk across the empty yard and talk all sorts of things.
"What are you going to be, Bob, when you grow up?"
"A writer," he said.
"Oh, that's big ambition."
"I know, but I'm going to try," he told her. "I've read a lot."
He thought for a while and said, "Do me a favor, Miss Taylor?"
"It all depends."
"I walk every Saturday along the creek to Lake Michigan. There're a lof of butterflies and crayfish. Maybe you'd like to walk too."
"I'm afraid not. I'm going to be busy."
He started to ask doing what, but stopped. "I take along sandwiches and pop. I wish you'd come."
"Thanks, Bob, perhaps some other time."
"I shouldn't have asked you, should I?" he said.
"You have every right to ask anything you want to," she said.

A few days later she gave him a copy of Great Expectations. He stayed up all night reading it, and they talked about it.

Each day Bob met Miss Taylor and many days she would start to tell him not to come anymore, but she never could.

He talked with her about Dickens and Kipling and Poe, coming and going to school. But she found it impossible to call on him to recite in class. She would hesitate, then call someone else. Nor would she look at him while they were walking. But on several late afternoons as he moved his arm high on the blackboard, sponging away the arithmetic symbols, she found herself glancing over at him for seconds at a time.

Then one Saturday morning he was standing in the creek with his overalls rolled up to his knees, bending to catch crayfish, when he looked up and saw her.
"Well, here I am," she said, laughing.
"And do you know," he said, "I'm not surprised."
"Show me the crayfish and the butterflies," she said.

They walked down to the lake and sat on the sand with a warm wind blowing softly about them, fluttering her hair and the ruffle on her blouse, and he sat a few yards back from her and they ate the ham-and-pickle sandwiches and drank the orange pop solemnly.
"I didn't think I would ever come on a picnic like this," she said.
"With some kid," he said.
They said little else during the afternoon.

"This is all wrong," Bob said later. "And I can't figure why. Just walking along and catching butterflies and crayfish and eating sandwiches. But Mom and Dad'd rib me if they knew, and the kids would too. And the other teachers would laugh at you, wouldn't they?"
"I'm afraid so. I don't exactly understand how I came here at all," she said.

That was about all there was to the meeting of Miss Ann Taylor and Bob Spaulding: two or three monarch butterflies, a copy of Dickens, a dozen crayfish, four sandwiches and two afternoon, she left early with a headache.

But on Tuesday after school they were both in the silent room again - he sponging the board contentedly, and she working on her papers in peace, when suddenly the courthouse clock struck five. Its great bronze boom shuddered one's body, making you seem older by the minute. Miss Taylor put down her pen.
"Bob," she said, "come here."
"Yes'm." He put down the sponge.
She looked at him intently for a moment until he looked away. "Bob," I wonder if you know what I'm going to talk to you about."
"Yes," he said at last. "About us."
"How old are you, Bob?"
"Going on fourteen."
"Do you know how old I am?"
"Yes'm, I heard. Twenty-four. I'll be twenty four in ten years, almost," he said. "And sometimes I feel twenty-four."
"Yes, and sometimes you almost act it."
"Do I, really?!!"
"Now sit still. It's very important that we understand what is happening. First, let's admit we are the greatest friends in the world. I have never had a student like you, nor have I had as much affection for any boy I've ever known." He flushed at this. She went on. "And let me speak for you - you've found me to be the nicest teacher of any you've ever known."
"Oh, more than that," he said.
"Perhaps more than that, but there are facts to be faced - a town and its people, and you and me. I've thought this over, Bob. Don't think I've been unaware of my feelings. Under some circumstances our friendship would be odd. But you are no ordinary boy. And I know I'm not sick, mentally or physically, and that whatever has evolved here has been a true regard for your character and goodness. But those are not the things we consider in this world, unless they occur in a man of a certain age. I don't know if I'm
saying this right."
"If I was ten years older and about fifteen inches taller it'd make all the difference," he said.
"I know it seems foolish," she said. "When you feel very grown-up and right and have nothing to be ashamed of. Maybe someday they will judge a person's mind so accurately that they can say, 'This is a man, though his body is only thirteen, with a man's responsibility.' But until then, we have to go by ages and heights in an ordinary world."
"I don't like that," he said.
"Perhaps I don't either, but there really is no way to do anything about us."
"Yes, I know."
"We must decide what to do," she said. "I can secure a transfer from this school ..."
"You don't have to do that," he said. "We're moving. My folks and I, we're going to live in Madison."
"It has nothing to do with all this, has it?"
"No, no, my father has a new job there. It's only fifty miles away. I can see you, can't I?"
"Would that be a good idea?"
"No, I guess not," he said.
They sat awhile in the silent schoolroom.
"When did all this happen?" he said, helplessly.
"I don't know," she said. "Nobody ever knows. They haven't known for thousand of years. Sometimes two people like each other who shouldn't. I can't explain it."
"There's one thing I want you to remember," she said finally. "There are compensations in life. You don't feel well now; neither do I. But something will happen to fix that. Do you believe that?"
"I'd like to. If only you'd wait for me," he blurted.
"Ten years?"
"I'd be twenty-four then."
"But I'd be thirty-four and another person entirely, perhaps. No, I don't think it can be done."

He sat there for a long time. "I'll never forget you," he said.
"You'll forget."
"I'll find a way of never forgetting you," he said.
She went to erase the boards.
"I'll help you," he said.
"No, no," she said hastily. "You go home."

He left the school. Looking back, he saw Miss Taylor through the window, at the board, slowly washing out the chalked words.

HE moved away the next week and was gone for 16 years. Though he was only 50 miles away, he never got to Green Town again until he was almost 30 and married. Then one spring they were driving through on their way to Chicago and stopped off for a day.

Bob left his wife at the hotel and walked around town and finally asked about Miss Ann Taylor.
"Oh, yes, the pretty teacher. She died in 1936, not long after you left."
Had she ever married?
"No, come to think of it, she never had."

He walked out to the cemetery and found her stone, which said, "Ann Taylor, born 1910, died 1936." And he thought, Twenty-six years old. Why, I'm almost four years older than you are now, Miss Taylor."

Later in the day the people in the town saw Bob Spaulding's wife strolling to meet him under the elms and the oak trees. She was the fine peaches of summer in the snow winter, and she was cool milk for cereal on a hot early-summer morning. And this was one of those rare few days in time when the climate was balanced like a leaf between winds that blow just right, one of those days that should have been named, everyone agreed, after Robert Spaulding's wife."

- Condensed from "A Story of Love", a short story by Ray Bradbury.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Requiem For A Marriage

by Pat Conroy
From Jan 1988 Reader's Digest (Pages 109-112)

EACH DIVORCE is the death of a small civilization. Two people declare war on each other, and their screams and tears infect their entire world with the bacilli of their pain. The greatest fury comes from the wound where love once issued forth.

I find it hard to believe how many people now get divorced, how many submit to such extraordinary pain. For there are no clean divorces. Divorces should be conducted in abattoirs or surgical wards. In my own case, I think it would have been easier if Barbara had died. I would have been gallant at her funeral and shed real tears -- far easier than staring across a table, telling each other it was over.

It was a killing thing to look at the mother of my children and know that we would not be together for the rest of our lives. It was terrifying to say good-by, to reject a part of my own history.

How does it happen that two people who once loved each other, who felt incomplete in the absence of the other, are brought to that moment of grisly illumination when they decied it has gone irretrievably wrong? How can love change its garments and come disguised as indifference, anger, even loathing?

Divorce should be declared a form of insanity, or a communication disease (how often married couples seem to feel threatened around their divorced friends). I have seen no one walk out of a divorce unmarked; it makes you a different person. You can enter the sinister cocoon as a butterfly and stagger out later as a caterpillar doomed to walk under the eye of the spider. Or you can reverse the process. There are no laws of nature that apply-only laws of suffering, different for each individual.

When I went through my divorce I saw it as a country, and it was treeless, airless; there were no furloughs and no holidays. I entered without passport, without directions and absolutely alone. Insanity and hopelessness grew in that land like vast orchards of malignant fruit. I do not know the precise day that I arrived in that country. Nor am I certain that you can ever renounce your citizenship there.

One thing is certain: a divorce does not begin when one person looks at another and says, "I want to put an end to this." It starts long before, when the hurt begins, when you come to the astonishing realization that you are lonely even though you are married. Divorce is the process of institutionalizing that loneliness, of building a grotesque structure out of nightmare and anger and guilt.

As my marriage broke up, everything broke up in a process of psychological deterioration. I still hate the silhouette of a local hotel simply because it was being built as I was falling apart. For an entire year I did nothing but talk about the divorce and seek out other people who had made the promenade through the volcano. The nights were filled with our tales of extraordinary destruction and anger. One woman had taken her wedding pictures and cut them into fragments. We were all survivors of the worst times
of our lives.

Each divorce has its own metaphors that grow out of the dying marriage. One man was inordinately proud of his aquarium. He left his wife two weeks after the birth of their son. What visitors noticed next was that she was not taking care of the aquarium. The fish began dying. The two endings became linking in my mind.

For a long time I could not discover my own metaphor of loss - until the death of our dog, Beau, became the irrefutable message that Barbara and I were finished.

Beau was a feisty, crotchety dachshund Barbara had owned when we married. It took a year of pained toleration for us to form our alliance. But Beau had one of those illuminating inner lives that only lovers of dogs can understand. He has a genius for companionship. To be licked by Beau when you awoke in the morning was a fine thing.

On one of the first days of our separation, when I went to the house to get some clothes, my youngest daughter, Megan, ran out to tell me that Beau had been hit by a car and taken to the animal clinic. I raced there and found Ruth Tyree, Beau's veterinarian. She carried Beau in to see me and laid him on the examining table.

I had not cried during the terrible breaking away from Barbara. I had told her I was angry at my inability to cry. Now I came apart completely. It was not weeping, it was screaming, it was despair.

The car had crushed Beau's spine, the X-ray showing irreparable damage. Beau looked up at me while Dr. Tyree handed me a piece of paper, saying that she needed my signature to put Beau to sleep.

I could not write my name because I could not see the paper. I leaned against the examining table and cried as I had never cried in my life, crying not just for Beau but for Barbara, the children, myself, for the death of marriage, for inconsolable loss. Dr. Tyree touched me gently, and I heard her crying above me. And Beau, in the last grand gesture of his life, dragged himself to the length of the table on his two good legs and began licking the tears as they ran down my face.

I had lost my dog and found my metaphor. In the X-ray of my dog's crushed spine, I was looking at a portrait of my broken marriage.

But there are no metaphors powerful enough to describe the moment when you tell the children about the divorce. Divorces without children are minor-league divorces. To look into the eyes of your children and to tell them you are mutilating their family and changing all their tomorrows is an act of desperate courage that I never want to repeat. It is also their parent's last act of solidarity and the absolute sign that the marriage is over. It felt as though I had doused my entire family with gasoline and struck
a match.

The three girls entered the room and would not look at me or Barbara. Their faces, all dark wings and grief and human hurt, told me that they already knew. My betrayal of these young, sweet girls filled the room.

They wrote me notes of farewell, since it was I who was moving out. When I read them, I did not see how I could ever survive such excruciating pain. The notes said, "I love you, Daddy. I will visit you." For months I would dream of visiting my three daughters locked in a mental hospital. The fear of damaged children was my most crippling obsession.

For a year I walked around feeling as if I had undergone a lobotomy. There were records I could not listen to because of their association with Barbara, poems I could not read from books I could not pick up. There is a restaurant I will never return to because it was the scene of an angry argument between us. It was a year when memory was an acid.

I began to develop the odd habits of the very lonely. I turned the stereo on as soon as I entered my apartment. I drank to the point of not caring. I cooked elaborate meals for myself, then could not eat them.

I worried about the men Barbara would date. I knew I had no right to worry and worried even more. I was afraid she would date men who would be cruel to her, who would be unworthy of her, who would ignore the kids. I had left Barbara, and I still had a primitive need to possess her. I wanted her to forget me; I wanted her to miss me.

I had entered into the dark country of divorce, and for a year I was one of its ruined citizens. I suffered. I survived. I studied myself on the edge, and introduced myself to the stranger who lived within. It was at once most painful and valuable year I had ever spent. This is the one gift of the dark country.

I found I had been locked in the dilemma of many American males, raised not to give or receive affection, not to weep when I was hurting, not to love women in ways that made them feel secure and desirable and needed. I felt inexpressible reserves of love within me, and I searched for women who understood about the inarticulate lover screaming from within.

Barbara and I had one success in our divorce, and it is an extraordinary rare one. As the residue of anger and hurt subsided with time, we remained friends. We saw each other for drinks or lunch occasionally, and I met her boyfriend, Tom.

Once, when I was leaving a party, I looked back and saw Barbara and Tom holding hands. They looked very happy together, and it was painful to recognize it. I wanted to go back and say something to Tom, but I mostly wanted to say it to Barbara. I wanted to say that I admired Tom's taste in women.

- Condensed from ATLANTA MAGAZINE

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Best Criticism I Ever Received

by Richard Wolkomir
From Sep 1986 Reader's Digest (Pages 94-96)

[I was brimming over with self-congratulation when I met the theater manager. His words, simple as they were, hit me like a harpoon.]

AFTER MY SOPHOMORE YEAR in college, I worked for the summer as a sub reporter at my hometown newspaper. I saw it as a step toward becoming a "literary" person. I was cloudy abou what literary meant, but I was sure it involved being a "sophisticate." I was as vague about the meaning of sophisticate as I was about literary, except that I was sure it had a lot to do with being like our newspaper's editor.

He was a genuine literary person, a poet with longish hair, a doleful mustache and a sharp blue eyes. His verse appeared in esteemed magazines, and he always had wry, witty comments to make. I wished that I, too, might develop a sharp, superior eye for other's foibles and failings. That summer's big event was the arrival of an acting troupe, whose young members enthusiastically began transforming a sagging store in a nearby resort hamlet in the Catskill Mountains into a theater. The manager visited our newspaper
and explained that the actors were learning four different plays, which they would present alternately. "It's a lot for these kids to get ready," he said worriedly.

Sometimes the editor and I drove over to watch rehearsals. As we slouched in the rear row, he would whisper amusing comments, for the performers were still floundering and flubbing. To me, it all seemed delightfully urbane.

Then we would leave the magic of the theater, and I would go back to my real work. It consisted of writing stories on the order of "New Pumper for Volunteer Fire Company." As a blossoming literary person, I yearned to try more colorful material. I wanted to write something that would win the editor's applause. But our village had no chic set whose glittery doings I could report on, only people working hard to pay their rent and buy groceries. Yet we did have the new theater.

A regular reporter would be reviewing the play. I decided to attend opening night even so, and write a review just for the editor to see. Possibly, if my article had sufficient verve and bite, he would run it. But his simple approval would be reward enough.

On opening night the theater was almost full. The people sitting next to me commented on how plucky it was for the troupe to learn four plays and build the theater at the same time.

I waved to our newspaper's official critic. She was a tall, kindly widow who I was sure would write a cheery review. I would fill my review with wry observations and mordantly turned phrases.

Most of the actors were only a bit older than my own 19 years. I sensed that the pretty, dark-haired female lead had the jitters about tonight's performance. It was painful for me as she flubbed her first line. I thought the editor would find it amusing, however, so I made a note.

I also jotted down when the male lead entered the stage from the wrong place. He deftly ad-libbed a few lines that eased the other actors out of their confusion. But I made no note of that, as it would not lend itself to trenchant prose.

On my way out after the play was over and the standing ovation had died away, I met the regular reviewer. "Isn't it wonderful, a theater like this, right here?" she said. "And the actors are so enthusiastic." I agreed absent-mindedly, preoccupied with the ironic, barbed sentences I was going to write.

I worked late that night, polishing my article. The next day the regular critic's review came out. As I had expected, it was enthusiastic, and she found something to praise in each actor's performance. Finally I handed in what I'd written.

From my desk, I watched the editor glancing over my manuscript. He grinned, leaned back in his chair, put his feet up on the desk and gave it his undivided attention. He laughed out loud and then laughed again, more heartily. I felt flushed with excitement, almost giddy.

"This is funny - it has a sharp edge," the editor told me. 'I'm going to run this review too."

When it appeared the next afternoon, I read through five times and felt myself filling with the helium of success. I saw a brilliant career ahead of me as a critic, my favor courted, my printed words avidly read.

In that intoxicated state I met the theater manager in front of the five-and-dime. "Well," I said, brimming over with self-congratulation, "how did you like my review?"

I'm not sure what I expected him to say. I was young, unsure of myself, and - just now - drunk on praise. Surely, he also would be amused by my carefully crafted phrases. The theater manager's words, simple as they were, hit me like a harpoon. He said, "You hurt a lot of people."

The balloon of my self-satisfaction burst. To win the praise for which I hungered, I had blinded myself to how my waspish criticisms would make those actors feel. Standing there on Main Street, I felt a little sick.

I braced myself for his anger. Instead, he spoke softly. "You write so well. But you know, all work is difficult, and life is too," he said. "Instead of using whatever abilities we have to tear down, just so we'll look clever and sophisticated, shouldn't we be trying to help one another be excellent?"

That was nearly 25 years ago, but I still see that theater manager whenever I have the urge to criticize somebody else's efforts, whether it is work in an office or the arrangements for a meeting or the decoration of a house. And I think of the review by the newspaper's regular reporter, which gently suggested where the actors might improve, while focusing on what they did well and urging them on the excellence. Perhaps that kindly widow was the true sophisticate.

Not long ago, a man stopped me on the street. "I read your writings from time to time, and I enjoy your positive outlook - you never seem to knock anyone," he said. Smiling, he added, "I bet that's the best criticism you've ever received."

I thought again of the theater manager. To the man who had just complimented me, I said, "You don't know how much I appreciated that. But no, actually it's the second-best."

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Rewards Of A Gracious Heart

From July 1969 Reader's Digest (Pages 116-118)

On the way to Inverness, Scotland, several years ago, a big jawboned farm woman sitting beside me on the bus asked why an American should travel north in the dead of winter. "It's rooky weather in the Highlands".

I explained that I liked wild weather and that I was gathering material for a historical novel, talking to country people, soaking up sheep-lore and folkways that have changed little in four centuries.

She invited me to visit her overnight. "We've a wee croft, but warm, and I'd welcome your company, for my husband's off to market."

It was raining hard when we reach her home, a dumpy stone cottage on a bleak slope. Collies welcomed us, and Mrs. McIntosh led me into a spotless, shabby parlor.

Suddenly, the lights flickered and died. She sighed, "The power's out," and lit candles. While she was making a fire there was a knock on the door.

She opened it and a boy came in. She took his dripping coat and cap, and as he move into the fire light I saw that he was about 12 years old - pitifully crippled.

After he caught his breath, he said, "My father tried to ring you, but your phone is dead. I came to see that you're all right."

"Thank you, John," she said, and introduced us. The wind rose, raving and screaming, battering the shutters. I told them how much I loved the drama of the storm.

"You're not scared?" John asked. I started to say no, but Mrs. McIntosh, though obviously afraid of nothing, quickly said what any boy longs to hear, "Of course she was scared, and so was I. But now we have got a mon aboot."

There was a moment's silence.

Then he rose. "I'll see that everything's snug," he said. And he hobbled out with a little swagger.

Weeks later the incident still haunted me. Why hadn't I answered his question as Mrs. McIntosh had - tenderly, imaginatively? And how often before in my life, insensitive through self-absorption, had I failed to recognize another's need?

Perhaps my heart had been asleep for years, but now it was awakening, anxious to compensate for lost opportunities, and avidly curious. By what magic has Mrs. McIntosh transformed a crippled boy into a confident man? Had it been instinctive kindness, or deliberate? Was it compassion, tact or a combination? Then I recalled an expression used by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. He had called such generosity of spirit the "gracious heart."

Looking back, I realized how often I had been helped by such hearts, how often I, too, had been exalted by a single gracious phrase or act. My mother did this to me many times when I was young and vulnerable, conferring the precious gift of self-esteem by a thoughtful gesture.

Once when I was seven, she was planning a formal tea and I wanted to help. I picked a bunch of dandelions and brought them to her. Many a mother would have thanked me and plumped the ragged weeds into a milk bottle in the kitchen. But my mother arranged them in her loveliest vase on the piano between tall candelabra. And she made no simpering explanation to her guests about "little Betty's flowers." Now, whenever I see flowers at a party, I remember the pride I felt that my dandelions, treasured above roses, had
the place of honor.

The gracious heart is, above all, strongly understanding of the feelings of others.

My teen-age brother taught me this the night he helped to create a popular girl. He had seen her at a dance - a shy, unattractive little freshman. Nobody paid any attention to her, and she faded against the wall. My brother was moved by her predicament. He asked her to dance, and a minor miracle occurred. She was so happy that she sparkled and was almost pretty. Another boy cut in; afterward she danced nearly every dance.

Gallantry like that deepens every relationship. It can polish a marriage to a new lustre. My friend Marge told me that on her 40th birthday she was, like many women, deeply depressed. She knew that happy, productive years lay ahead, but in the excessive value placed on youth in our society, she had lost her perspective. She said nothing of this to her husband at breakfast, but after he left she gave way to tears. She foresaw deepening wrinkles, a struggle to remain slender. By the time her husband came home she had regained a degree of calm, but the ache persisted. After dinner he said, "Come and see your presents."

They had always exchanged practical gifts and she suspected he had sneaked in the new vacuum cleaner they needed. But to her amazement she unwrapped a pair of jeweled boundoir slippers and a lace negligee. "He didn't explain why," she said. "But I knew what he was implying: 'You're beautiful, you're glamorous.' And the odd thing was, I began to feel that way."

The gracious heart is never too busy. I recall hearing of a little boy who was devoted to a battered, one-eyed teddy bear. Hospitalized for a tonsillectomy, he was holding Teddy close when the surgeon came to his bedside just before the operation. A nurse moved to take the bear, but the doctor said gravely, "Leave Teddy there. He needs attention, too."

When the child regained consciousness, Teddy was snuggled against the pillow - and across his missing eye was the neatest bandage a skilled surgeon could devise."

Opportunities to put this rewarding talent to good use are all around us. I was shopping with a friend in New York's Italian section when she noticed a boy of about eight helping his father sell vegetables from a pushcart. He proudly sold a cauliflower to a woman and waited for payment, but she reached past him and gave the money to his father. The little fellow's smile faded; his shoulders slumped. My friend realized that somehow she would have to retrieve the child's pride. She called him over and selected tomatoes and scallions which he put in a bag. She could have given him even changes; instead she gave him a dollar. For a few seconds he frowned, calculating; then he brightened and handed her the correct change.
"Thank you," she said. "I couldn't have figured that fast."
"Aw, it was nothin'," he said, looking at his father. But it was something to him, and suddenly all four of us were beaming, warmed by the glow that her imaginative act had created.

"The gracious heart protects and enlarges the self-respect of the other person, builds his ego," says Dr. Peale. "When you come home from work and your child races to greet you, asking excitedly, 'Did you hear what happenned on Main Street today?', your gracious heart, somehow, had not heard the news - it gives the child the pleasure of telling you. But if you say, 'Oh. Yes. I heard about it an hour ago.', your heart is only building up your own ego."

There is enormous love in this world - unconscious, instintive, eager for expression. Each of us can learn to unlock it with the thoughtful courtesies of a gracious heart.