“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”is beyond yoga philosophy. It’s an awareness truth.
It Is A Wonderful Life is saved for Christmas; but, mirrors what most of us wonder. Do I really matter? How profound to be given a glimpse of now if you were never born. Or, better yet, a version of your life without the gift of another’s wonderful presence. This story is to remind you of the power you have to touch lives and we are full of wonder when united.
1988. Graduated from college, promoted to management of the restaurant I bartended at. I worked ferocious hours to prove I could match the men. Told , ‘this is a good ole boy’s’ network and women in management was being tested. “You’ll have to work twice as hard to be respected” was the ‘off the record’ retort to my inquiry about protocol for future promotions and bonus incentives. Instead of being offended, I had youth, determination and a new aspiration. Intention to become one of the first female general managers of the company was set.
My work ethic and love of making others smile while on my shift kept me focused. My only distraction was my first love. It was unexpected, unprecedented and unbelievable.
He was the guy who came to fix equipment. The handyman. And he was very handy, indeed. Solid body with arms that couldn’t help but flash a bulge of muscle when it moved. Even his hands calloused by work were sexy. Proved to be tough and tender. Sandy dark blonde hair, bronze skin year round, hazel eyes glittering mischief and a smile to match. Easy to laugh and walked like he didn’t have a care in the world. You couldn’t help but like him. He was a man’s man and some of the best eye candy I ever tasted.
I got to know him over a couple of years as he came almost weekly to repair something in the kitchen. Maybe I accidentally turned the wrong switch from time to time. Maybe I was teasing the Cosmos. Maybe it was teasing me.
Loved when he started coming to the bar on college football game days. Looked like a model for Levi’s the way they relaxed on his legs. While managing the madness of a busy shift, I’d watch him smile with others as UT Vols were winning or shaking his head if losing. I’d occasionally catch him looking at me and my imagination went wild. Direct eye contact sparked a heatwave. We took turns breaking the gaze. It was complicated….this wasn’t supposed to be happening. I was married. Not happily; but married nonetheless.
One day, he was fixing a malfunctioning grill and I was asking how it happens. Our chitchat morphed from business to casual. He asked if I’d meet him for a drink one night. It was time. I couldn’t resist. That night gave me courage to divorce a man I never should have married. It was over before it started. At 22, I lacked the guts and foresight to break the engagement. So, I consider my 16 month marriage a trial run.
Like a fingertip barely touching a row of tall standing dominoes, I fell for Larry. I gave him raises for his handy work every chance I got. We were crazy about each other. The insatiable desire of love and lust somehow crossed over in my work performance. Two years into my career and relationship, I got offered to open a new store in St. Louis. If I did well, I’d be next in line for general manager of a store of my own. I was 26 and back in the day, this was a big deal. Deep down, I didn’t care because all I wanted was a proposal from a man I truly loved.
Told him of my career offer, hoping for a counter offer. Didn’t happen. He didn’t want me to leave, but he didn’t want to marry. I had to make a choice. Stay for status quo or be strong and move up. Not a status quo person, I had to do the hardest thing ever…break ties with a man I cherished. He cried the day I packed. He cried the day I said goodbye as I got in the car. I told him I’d toss the offer if we had a future. He was honest. He couldn’t let go of his freedom…he loved me…he just didn’t want to marry or have another child. (He was 5 years older and had a beautiful daughter) I respected his honesty despite the pain. I had to leave to move forward.
I cried the whole way to St. Louis. Arrived to a new city with no friends and a broken heart. Had to live in a motel for a few weeks until my apartment was available. Money was tight. The alleged re-location package fell quite short of actual expenses. The restaurant was built out and I was in charge of organizing the kitchen, training the staff, getting food ordered, stocking and more. Worked 80 hours a week…basically worked, ate and slept.
Two weeks into the nightmare, I had spent all the money I had, which wasn’t much to begin with. The rental truck, gas, hotel expenses, broken lease expense, two months advance for apartment and other assundries maxed my credit card. My naïveté in thinking the moving per diem provided would suffice left me broke. The restaurant wasn’t even a source of food because it was being finished out. Payday was two weeks away and I couldn’t ask for an advance. I sensed an immediate dislike from the general manager and his chosen team. I came from the outside. And, like I said…female managers were being tested.
I needed money to eat. I never asked family for help. There was too much bitterness. But, I finally broke down to ask my dad if I could borrow some money until payday. I was that hungry. Told him the gist of the story and his response was “what are you going to do?” My response, “Figure it out without thinking family as a source” and hung up. I had like $10 left and went to the motel bar for free pretzels and a .99 cent beer. Sometimes the bartender had chips and salsa set out. Beggars cannot be choosers and I was grateful.
I sat alone, sad, worried, wondering what the hell I was thinking when I said yes to the move. A tall, older gentleman stood next to my bar stool and asked how I was doing. I looked at him and said I was fine. He stared at me and asked again. Silence. He waited.
I broke down crying. I hit rock bottom at many levels. Apologized for eating all the pretzels. He smiled the warmest smile and handed me a menu…”get whatever you want…I will take care of it.” I couldn’t say yes and I couldn’t say no.
“I’ve noticed you coming here for the past week and you look worn out, malnourished and lost. I wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t ask if you needed help. I am the general manager of this motel and something tells me you’re in trouble. I know you don’t know me and I don’t know you…but, I care.”
I felt his warmth and compassion. I opened up and told him my story. I told him about the heartbreak, the transfer, the lack of money, the lack of residency, the lack of knowing what to do next. I had to catch my breath between tear fits. He listened, nodded and shook his head in disbelief. He pointed to the menu and told the bartender to take care of me. He excused himself after patting me on the shoulder.
He brought the hamburger I ordered and said not to worry about meals anymore. He said his wife would be cooking with my attendance in mind. He said their home was close by and I was welcome. I could do what felt most comfortable. After devouring the best meal in weeks, I went to meet his wife. He drove me to a beautiful home decorated for the Christmas season.
His wife was lovely. She greeted me with a hug. She served hot chocolate and cookies. The fireplace kept us warm as we talked like old friends in the living room. I was in disbelief of the kindness of strangers. Because of them, I don’t fear people I don’t know. Everyone seems to be a smile away from being a comrade.
They said they felt I was an opportunity brought to them to practice what they believed. Their two kids in college were coming in for the holidays and were glad to have my company. This family structure was very foreign to me and I had my doubts. But, they proved me wrong.
I stayed at the motel to sleep; but, when not working, I was encouraged to share meals with them…told to hang out and relax…or, rest if tired. I think I did sleep a night or two there because I felt safe and cared for. On Christmas Eve, the wife and her daughter took me on their last minute shopping spree. I didn’t have money to spend, but they made a point to tell me I was their guest and graced me with gifts. I tried to decline trying on a sweater they found. They wouldn’t allow it. It made them happy to give.
We spent Christmas Day together and I felt like I belonged. As we went around the table expressing thanks, I told them I had no idea how to repay them for their kindness. I couldn’t thank them enough for their rescue when I was my most lost. I’ve never forgotten what the man said.
“We don’t want or need you to pay us back. All we ask is if the opportunity presents itself and you are able, just pay it forward. Teach that to others and we will consider ourselves reimbursed with interest. Will you do that?” He was humble in his request and I felt no pressure…but, instead desire for my chance to pay him forward. I promised I’d make them proud. He smiled and thanked me. Surreal, but, very real.
Two days later, my apartment was ready and I went to the motel front desk to clear the balance. I had gotten paid and had money in hand. When I asked for the ticket, the front desk said I had no balance. The room bill was taken care of. I didn’t understand and said that was impossible…I hadn’t paid. She blushed and in a lowered voice, she said the general manager wrote it off and told her to remind me of his small request. Wow. I had a good debt to pay forward.
I only lived in St. Louis for another month or so after I got in the apartment. I didn’t fit in with the management and I missed Rocky Top and the comforts of familiarity. I thanked the couple whose names I can’t remember, but, whose hearts I won’t forget. They taught me unconditional love and kindness. The stuff you see in movies, but don’t believe exist. I am here to say it does. These strangers changed my life trajectory. Without their conviction to walk the walk, I know my life would not be the wonderful life it has been and is. And, I have made it a mission to pay it forward for the past 25 years. I hope a few of my angels in need have continued the tradition.
So, be the stranger who befriends. Give without expecting payback. What you do or don’t do does matter. We wish we got accolades for the unknown acts of kindness…like an affirmation of reassurance. But, you do. It is just not always from your direct recipients. Pretty cool secret to hold under the vest that you’re among the elite tribe of unforgettable strangers.
Wishing you kindness year round. Life is too unpredictable to wait once a year to give. Make yourself unforgettable. Touch hearts with faith, hope and love. That is where the best stories come from….the strangers who are angels in disguise.