*Photo taken from the Congress Trail at Sequoia National Park in 2017.
I had another post all set to go, but I just couldn’t publish it. I’m not sure I’m brave enough to say what’s been on my mind lately, because my feelings are still too mixed up about it. I’ll go ahead and say it has to do with racism and white supremacy and oppression and sexism…but I don’t feel ready to put my post up about it yet. Instead, I think I will fall back on what I know is far better to send out into the world at any time: love. It’s what I believe is missing from too many conversations, not just now, but all the time. We forget to see people for who they are, and we forget that all people have beauty in them, just as all people can be ugly, too. No matter who we are, we are both perfect and imperfect at the same time. Rather than focus on all the ways the world is wrong, it might help if we start to see all the ways it is right, and to remember everyone deserves to feel loved.
Let me begin with a beautiful story about my friend, Ola Mae Gayton. Several years ago, I was sitting at a table with a group of friends. We just finished eating a pot luck dinner which was the traditional end to a local celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Every year for (I think) about two decades, a celebration has taken place at the First Presbyterian Church in Olean, NY. Every year, most of the church pews are full of people who listen to stories, music, poetry, and presentations about Dr. King’s work for civil rights. After we sing “We Shall Overcome” as a group holding hands all the way around the church, we all eat a meal together. It’s usually a beautiful tribute to Dr. King’s life and work, and for many, many years I looked forward to the day. In any case, it was after the dinner that I found myself sitting at a table chatting with friends, and one of the people sitting at the table was Ola Mae Gayton. Somehow we got onto the subject of Ola Mae’s former restaurant, and the fact that I missed her delicious banana cake when the restaurant closed. In my usual way, I made sure Ola Mae knew how much I appreciated her cooking, because I believe people deserve to know when they are appreciated.
In her usual way, Ola Mae smiled her beautiful white smile and laughed her rich, contralto laugh, and she thanked me for the compliment. We finished our chat and got the room cleaned up and we all went home. It’s been years since this happened, so I can’t remember how long after the celebration Ola Mae called me on the phone, but she did. Ola Mae had never called me before, so I was surprised to hear from her. I was even more surprised when she asked me if I was busy right then and could I come over to her house. If you are friends with a black woman and she asks you to come over, you are duty-bound to say “Yes, ma’am,” and do it. It’s in a rule book somewhere, I’m sure. Being a good listener, I of course went straight to Ola Mae’s house, just like she asked. She was very cryptic over the phone, though, and said I should look for her husband, who would meet me on the porch. “Okay,” I said, not really sure what to expect, but Ola Mae had never steered me wrong. I went.
When I pull up in front of the house, it’s already dark outside, so I can’t immediately see that Ola Mae’s husband is waiting for me on the porch. I get out of my car, ready to go knock on the door, but here he comes holding something in his hands. He’s got a big smile on his face, and he greets me with his usual friendly hello. When I see what’s in his hands, I immediately say, “Oh, no she didn’t!” Jim just laughs and comes to give me the container, a Tupperware cake carrier. Oh, yes, she did. Ola Mae baked me a banana cake. I can’t remember all of what I said, other than to exclaim repeatedly that I couldn’t believe Ola Mae baked me a cake. Honestly, I felt so honored by that kindness. Maybe it seems silly to you, but it meant a lot to me. Ola Mae remembered what I said about missing her banana cake, and then she took the trouble to bake one for me. How many people do you know who would do that? I mean, this was a passing moment in a conversation, but she remembered. And she baked me a delicious, love-filled cake. It was heavenly.
When I returned the cake carrier, I made sure to fill it with some of my homemade granola, because I learned from another friend that you never return a container empty. Let me tell you, Ola Mae knows how to say I love you, and I will never forget that cake.
On a few occasions when I was down on my luck and low on cash, a wonderful pair of friends, also from Olean, NY, took it upon themselves to bring me a much-needed gift. Two particular occasions stand out in my mind. The first was when I was pregnant with my son, having just returned from living in Savannah, GA. I was at a crossroads in my life, but determined to do everything in my power to be the best mother possible to my unborn baby. It wasn’t easy to crawl home pregnant, unmarried, and ashamed of my lifestyle choices at the time. Truly, I was making the best decision I could have made for myself, which was to take good care of my health and go back to school to finish my bachelor’s degree. Once I finally got settled in a tiny new apartment, my friends (who also happened to live next door) came over to welcome me to my new neighborhood. They also brought me a couple of bags of groceries, a gift I really needed at the time. I will never forget how loved I felt when Jan and Mike came over with those brown bags stuffed with healthy food. I can’t remember exactly what food they brought me, but I remember the love. At a time when I felt so lonely, so misunderstood, they showed me I mattered, they cared, and they loved me.
About two decades later, right after I separated from my first husband, Jan and Mike showed up at my door after I moved into another new apartment. Once again, I was lonely, depressed, and felt abandoned by all the people I thought were my friends. Few people came to see me after my separation, at a time when I desperately needed comfort and solace. Because I left with little cash, and nowhere near enough money coming in to pay bills and buy food, I was struggling to feed my kids. For a while I found myself redeeming soda bottles just for the little bit of change I could get, and then I could buy enough food to feed my kids when they were staying with me. Jan and Mike once again brought me groceries. When everyone else seemed to treat me as though I had the plague, Jan and Mike brought me groceries and love. I needed those groceries more than they probably knew at the time, because I didn’t broadcast how hard I had it. Most of the time, I keep my problems to myself and just try to take care of things on my own. But no one lives in a bubble. We all need love.
One last story I want to share has to do with my husband, Michael. While we were living in Ely, Nevada a year and a half ago, he told me I needed to pack a bag for a trip. I actually hate surprises, but I was trying to go with it until he told me I needed to prepare for temperatures ranging from below freezing to 100 degrees. At that point, I put my foot down and told him to tell me where we were going. He fessed up that we were driving to Sequoia National Park, and I just about died. My whole life I dreamed of seeing the sequoias, and because Michael knew this was a big deal to me, he planned a trip to take me there. Even though the first leg of the trip was kind of a mess (you can read my post about that trip here), the part of the trip where we finally got to see the trees was absolutely magical. I still think about it sometimes, and have to pinch myself that I got to go. The first time I saw one of the sequoias, I squealed with joy, jumped out of the truck, and hugged that tree with all the love I could muster. My hubby gave me one of the best experiences of my life when he took me to that park. That’s love. That trip changed my life, and I am still in awe of both the trees and my husband’s kindness.
When you learn of a way to make a person happy by doing a little thing like buying groceries, or a big thing like taking someone on a life-altering trip, do it for love. You may never realize how much that little show of love will mean to someone, nor how it may heal a heart. So many people have been kind to me in my life, and because they were kind, I felt loved. It matters. Make love the reason you do anything, and do it selflessly, without needing anything in return. When you do, it comes back to you tenfold.