What’s Left Behind

January 24th, 2014

Several months ago, I wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal about the time the movie star Patricia Neal visited our house (where she had once lived, many decades ago). After it was published, I started to get emails from people I didn’t know who wanted to tell me that they, too, had had  the good fortune to meet Ms. Neal briefly, and that they would never forget the experience, because she had been so warm and expressive and kind.

I was thinking about those emails recently and it got me musing about life–because I like to muse about life and what the point of it all  is.

I have no idea what the point of it all is.

But I do sometimes feel like I get a glimpse into something I need to think  more about, and it seems to me that those emails about Ms. Neal provided one of those glimpses.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have people you barely even met remember you? Why not try to see every encounter, every phone call, every dashed-off email as a chance to make someone else’s life a little more pleasant, even if just for a moment or two?

I know it’s not something you can sustain all the time. We have our bad days and sometimes other people are just annoying. And there are important fights to be fought–you can’t and shouldn’t make nice with people who would like to beat your gay son  to a pulp. So I’m not preaching rainbows and puppy dogs or anything. Just . . . why not be kind when you can? Why not try to help someone who reaches out to you even if it’s not your problem? Why not smile when a stranger’s eyes happen to meet yours or say “No problem” when a barrista gets your order wrong? Why not talk to the person on the other end of the phone as if he or she is, in fact, a person?

Is this too saccharine? I swear I’m not the “group hug in a cuddle puddle!” type. I just think about the legacy that Pat Neal left–not the famous movie star legacy (although, man, she made some great ones–anyone see A Face in the Crowd?), but the one where a bunch of people all said “That one day of my life was better because I got to talk to her for five minutes.”

There are worse ways to be remembered.

And here I demonstrate the  meaning of the word "behind." This photo has no other relevance.

And here I demonstrate the meaning of the word “behind.” This photo has no other relevance.

  • Jen Connelly says:

    I’ve often wondered if anyone from my past remembers me. I don’t feel like I’ve ever made an impression one way or another, but that’s probably the depression talking because I’ve had a dozen people I went to high school friend me on facebook over the last few years, they obviously remember me. And since then I hope I’ve touched a few people I reached out to so that they remember me.

    I do have a story of someone reaching out to me. I don’t know her name and don’t really remember what she looked like. She could be dead by now for all I know. What I do know is one day in a crowded Walmart she saw a young, exhausted, exasperated mom chase two toddlers down an aisle while other people glared at the noise and disruption. Instead of adding to the judgment she stopped her way to the checkout to reach out to someone obviously in need of friend. She touched my shoulder as she passed, smiled up at me with bright, knowing eyes, and said, “God bless you.” Then patted my shoulder and walked away. I stood there was a toddler on either side, tears spilling down my face because it was probably the first kind word I’d gotten from anyone in reference to my being a parent. I had 3 kids under 3 (at the time they were about 1, 2 and 3) and all I’ve ever gotten is grief. I’ve had family tell me I don’t deserve “help” because it was my fault for ending up with 3 small kids, like the exhaustion and frustration was my punishment to bear for my sins (I don’t actually believe in sins).

    I will never for get that little old lady in Walmart. She was there and gone in a flash. I was so overcome with surprise and emotion and didn’t even say anything in return. But since that day when I see struggling moms in stores with their toddler screaming and people glaring I just give them a smile and a knowing look. I’ve been there. They usually give me a little smile back. I do it even when I’ve gone to the store to escape the noise and craziness of my (now) 5 children only to be bombarded by other people’s screaming kids. I kind of hope I’ve made a difference to at least one of them.

    • Claire says:

      Oh, Jen, what a lovely story about that woman! In our upcoming book, Lynn Koegel and I talk about the importance of people being supportive of parents who are stressed out. We’re so quick to JUDGE others in our society. I don’t understand why. We’ve all been there–we all know what it’s like to be out in public with kids who don’t necessarily behave perfectly. And yet instead of smiling at parents who are dealing with all that, we so often give disapproving looks. It’s ridiculous.

  • Anonymous says:

    So interesting. We are especially had on celebrities in public. I happened to be in a store in Westport Ct in the late 70’s. Patricia Neal was ahead in line. I knew it was her but did not try to engage in conversation. Westport had many celebrities and I let them be. After she left the store a women commented to her friend about how awful it was that Ms Neal was covered with cat hair and how could she walk around like that. I was a teenager but remember thinking how wrong those women were for judging.

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