Random Act Of Kindness
Owing to so many major breaking stories in the world at the moment — the staggering images of devastation coming out of Japan, the continuing strife engulfing the Middle East — this Sunday morning column will be rather short and sweet, a simple thank-you to a couple of thoughtful souls whose full names I don’t even know.
Last Sunday was a cool, rainy day in the Sandhills, the kind of day I love going to movies. After church, I convinced my wife that we should slip away and have a rainy-afternoon date in an empty theater.
Being the big fan of Westerns — a former card-carrying member of the official Roy Rogers Saturday Morning Fan Club, no less — I hoped I might convince my bride to see the critically acclaimed film “Rango,” an animated comedy about a smooth-talking lizard who finds himself transformed into a hero worthy of Gary Cooper in “High Noon,” one of half a dozen classic films, in fact, that the Johnny Depp-voiced movie pays homage to.
Anyway, the only thing wrong with this romantic calculation was that dozens of other folks had the same good idea, including lots of families. By the time we paid for our tickets and found the shortest of the long lines at the concession stand, I realized we’d gotten into the queue behind a family of six. Mom, Dad, and four kids.
My normal response in this situation is to sigh and remark that, when time is of the essence, I can always pick the wrong line to get into. Whether it’s the grocery store or the movies, I have a spectacular ability to choose the line that seems the shortest but turns out to take twice as long. The movie was scheduled to begin in minutes. Our line’s clerk seemed to be a rookie working her first busy matinee. I sure hate missing the previews.
Finally it was the turn of the family in front of us to be served. The mother herded her brood to the glass counter and invited the youngest to make her selection. As each one placed his or her order, he or she stepped aside where Papa Bear was waiting. I could feel his pain all the way to my wallet.
I glanced at my wife, wondering what she was thinking.
“Who do they remind you of?” she asked with a funny little smile. I knew instantly who she meant. She meant us — the way we used to be, our band of six moviegoers, pint-sized to papa.
“Only they’re far better organized,” she added with a laugh.
Instead of being annoyed, I suddenly found myself charmed and nostalgic, remembering what it was like to take our brood to the movies on a snowy day in Maine. We also had four kids: three boys and one feisty older sister.
Maggie, the oldest, more naturally organized than a White House honor guard, always had her order ready to go — either popcorn or Sno Caps.
Conner, our free spirit, always wanted Swedish Fish. The kid still lives off them. I just hope the college he attends next fall has them on their food plan.
Jack, our family philosopher, perhaps recalling what Spinoza said about man’s place in the ever-shifting universe, would hem and haw, decide on popcorn but switch to M&Ms and a Coke at the last moment.
Liam, our littlest, who has a peanut allergy and an IQ off the scale, was pure toddler torture. He would think for a while and ask the clerk detailed questions about the ingredients of every candy in the display, then take his own sweet time deciding between the same two items — and always wind up choosing Twizzlers. You could have fitted a customer for a suit in the time it took Liam to make up his mind.
At some point I was always aware of the holes being burned in the back of my skull from the customers we were holding up in line. One time I recall turning around to face a woman who looked as if she’d done her morning facial in industrial cement.
“Sorry we’re so slow,” I apologized. “These poor children have never been out in public before.”
“No problem,” she deadpanned. “I always love to come in at the middle of the movie.”
When the members of the family last Sunday had received their orders, I saw the mother motion the clerk forward to say something in her ear. The clerk nodded. The mom turned to me and smiled and off they went to find their seats.
We ordered our usual items, one small popcorn and medium Coke. Sadly, I lack the bladder capacity to handle a Coke the size of an oil drum, or a sack of popcorn that could feed a cheerleading squad. For that matter, don’t need to meet the Jabba the Hutt who actually orders the jumbo version of each item just to get the “free refills.” I handed the clerk my ATM card, and she handed me back the card and eight or nine bucks in change.
“Excuse me, Miss,” I said, “I think you’ve made a mistake. I’m paying by the card. There shouldn’t be any change.”
“Oh, sorry,” said the teenage clerk. “The people in front of you paid for your concessions.”
I had to stand there and let this soak in for a moment — holding up the line, of course. Good heavens, I thought, why had I never thought of doing this before?
“Are you sure about that?” I asked her.
“Yes sir,” she said.
I hoped the family had also chosen to see “Rango.” The theater was packed with families, but my wife spotted the couple and their kids up near the back rows and over at the end of an aisle.
We found seats reasonably near them and, as the lights lowered, I apologized my way over half a dozen people to return their change and offer 10 bucks to cover our snacks. The mom accepted the change but refused my money.
“That was the least we could do,” she said. “We’re a pretty big group.”
“You reminded us of our own troop,” I replied.
The two little kids whose view of some witless Coke commercial I was blocking looked ready to hail an usher and have me given the bum’s rush to the door.
“What are your names?” I whispered to the movie Samaritans as I retreated. I thought the mom said “Kim and John” but I can’t be sure.
After the movie, we loitered a bit to say a more proper thank-you, but they somehow got past us in the flow of satisfied moviegoers. Fortunately, they know who they are, even if I don’t.
Best of all, just think what splendid seeds of civility and grace they quietly planted in the fertile soil of their own children’s minds in terms of dealing with a wide and often unstable world.
Small eyes notice big things. In his lovely meditation upon the ruins at Tintern Abbey, poet William Wordsworth called such moments “little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love” and advanced the idea that such brief and seemingly random encounters are the best portion of a man’s life — the giver, I suppose Old Bill meant, as well as the receiver.
But random acts of thoughtfulness are wildly contagious critters. Everywhere I’ve gone this week I’ve had that thoughtful gesture lodged in my head, reminded of how small and nameless acts of kindness have a way of perpetuating themselves.
Seems like a very useful message for the start of the Lenten season, in a world where the ground is literally shaking from one thing or another. Don’t count on this aging Roy Rogers fan clubber forgetting it any time soon.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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