As a child, I was the consummate worrier, and nothing disturbed me more than the thought that once Fred Rogers hung up his cardigan, he was homeless. I asked my dad if, when Mr. Rogers walked out the front door, he was on the street, and Dad explained there was actually no street and no town. What? Was he going to step through that door and fall into an abyss? I sobbed over the fact that my beloved Mr. Rogers had no family. Despite my parents trying to explain about reality versus television, I worried. I remember one Thanksgiving begging my mother to invite Mr. Rogers for the holiday meal. I envisioned a whole day of festivities—watching the parade, introducing him around the dinner table. I could make him so happy. When at bedtime I burst into tears, anguished that he would be spending the holiday alone, my mother agreed to write a letter and invite him. She said she did it (but did she really?) and that he responded (I doubt he did) that he had a family and a place to celebrate and wished us all a Happy Thanksgiving.
Being the exhausting child I was, I asked to see his letter. She said he called. How did he know our number, I wanted to know. As I said, I was an exhausting child.
I think Mr. Rogers was such an important part of my life because he represented everything good in the world. It is from people like Mr. Rogers, people like my grandparents, folks like the older people I knew in church, that I developed an innate sense that people are essentially kind.
My belief in the inherent goodness of people may starkly contrast what we hear and see in the media today, but yet I believe. During the decade in which I was taking care of my parents, many times I was touched by the kindness of strangers.
One example stands out. A year ago, I was taking my mother out shopping for the upcoming first birthday of my twin great nieces. Mom was already under the care of hospice, so the future was uncertain, but on this particular day she felt good and was looking forward to the birthday party. When shopping with an elderly person, everything has to go like clockwork. On this particular day it did—until it didn’t. We went into a store before dinner with my mother was set on buying matching outfits. After the long, long walk to the children’s section, Mom kept repeating “12 to 18 months” over and over so she could remember what she was looking for.
She chose what she wanted, and we headed to the front to pay. I was on a mission and so far so good… until I saw the line that wrapped around—at least 30 people deep.
“Mom, you can’t stand in this long line,” I said, but she insisted we had come this far and she didn’t want to relinquish what she had found. I looked outside: the sunlight was starting to wane. That meant two things: Mom would be getting hungry, and sundown syndrome might be starting to take effect.
“Look, I’ll go sit,” Mom said, starting shuffling toward the empty chair by the door. I hesitated until someone at the end of the line assured me she would save my place. I walked Mom to the front and got her seated. She said she would be fine. I knew, though, that she got nervous when I was out of sight.
Reclaiming my place in line, I kept straining my neck to see her to no avail.
“Go check on your mama, I’ll keep your place,” the nice lady ahead of me said. Time and again I went up front to check on Mom. Time and again my place was reserved and gradually others around me started to tell me about their mothers, their grandmothers. After ten minutes, the line was still unbearably long, and I saw a woman two places in front of me lean over and whisper something to her husband. He glanced at me and then went up front, taking a seat next to Mom. The next time I checked on Mom, he had her deep in conversation.
“Don’t worry,” his wife said when I returned. “His mother’s 83. We know what it’s like. He’ll keep her entertained until you get done.”
And he did. At one point he brought me Mom’s purse.
“She said you’d need her wallet to pay,” he said.
I didn’t know any of the strangers around me in line, but if I could I would give them each a kidney. Mark Twain said that “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” I believe that goodness permeates our souls, as on that January day when, with the weather bitter and my emotions raw, I was buoyed by the generosity of strangers.
“What a nice man,” Mom said, having enjoyed the half hour she sat there. (Of course he also waited with her while I pulled the car up to the door). She tried to tell me what they talked about but couldn’t remember. One by one, as they checked out, customers waved back at me and greeted Mom at the door.
They were all someone’s children.
We went to dinner from there: to Red Lobster for potato soup. Halfway through her bowl, Mom commented that it was better than usual. I dipped my spoon in it and realized the server had brought her clam chowder instead. My mother was an unabashed hater of seafood for her entire life, and as it turns out, this would be her last meal out. When she passed away three weeks later, the irony was not lost on me, and I could hear her voice in my head.
“The clams probably killed me,” she would have said wryly.
Many times over the last year I have thought about the people in that line. Wondered how their mothers, fathers, grandparents were doing. Wondered if they realized that their simple acts of kindness that Winter afternoon made a difference. I have found myself looking for ways to be kind—especially to those grown children escorting their parents. A compliment here, a held door there, bits of conversation, smiles. These are the intentional generosities, small and grand, that buffer us against the inhumanity that threatens to make us cynical. In the words of the Dalai Lama, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” Indeed, there is a Mr. Rogers in each of us, wanting to bring a little light into the bleak winters of our lives… one deliberate act of kindness at a time. Look for your chance.