I met a woman last month who shared a story with me that she couldn't seem to forget, no matter how hard she tried. She had no idea why it was sticking with her, she said, but it haunted her every day. I know exactly why it haunts her, and you might, too.
The woman who told me this story had already provided all the clues necessary for me to know why it disturbed her so - and she didn't even know it. We were in a little gift shop in the midwest, I was there for work, she was there for fun. She didn't come to the store alone that afternoon; her husband was there with her. Sometimes, he comes in alone, the shop owner told me. Just once or twice a year, when we wants to surprise her with something special. He never knows what to choose, so we always spend as much time as he needs to help him out. :)
They are both in their late 70's, they had obviously been with each other longer than they hadn't. She had a slow pace to her walk, and I believe it was a bit painful for her to navigate the narrow aisles of the shop. She did so slowly, deliberately, enjoying each little display and item. Behind her, however, was the true heart of the story. The reason that what she simply could not forget what she had seen and was so desperate to tell me.
The answer was her husband. I talked with this woman for at least 40 minutes, and had seen her in the store for well over an hour before that; but I never once heard his voice. She did, of course, as every conversation was a quite and personal chat, heads close together. They laughed together when they were looking at some little plaques with funny messages, and they delighted in pointing out the particularly sassy ones to each other. She obviously thought the world of this quiet man, and often would take her hand off of her cane just to touch his elbow. When she came to talk to me, he stood right behind her. At one point in the conversation, he tucked in the tag to her coat and then gave her shoulder a quick rub. That said it all, to me.
That little motion said everything I needed to know about both of them. She exuded confidence, serenity, peace. Part of that, maybe most of that, came from him. The way he treated her, the way he looked at her, smiled at her. She never even turned around when he tucked in her tag - most of us would have spun around to see who was touching us - but she didn't. The little way he ran his hand across her shoulder immediately told her who was helping her out, although I'm sure there wasn't much doubt anyway. I'm pretty sure he had been on her six for decades, quietly taking care of the woman he so clearly valued so highly.
Here is the story she told me, and she did so with tears in her eyes. They had taken a day trip to another state to see an old church. A friend told them that it was an historic and architectural gem, really worth seeing. They spent an hour or so admiring the building, then went to the gift shop to get a postcard. 'We don't take a lot of photos that our kids won't want to plow through when we're gone', she said. 'We just like to get post cards and write something on the back that tells them we thought of the place. Plus, sometimes postcards go for quite a bit on the Antiques Roadshow!'.
At the post card display they met another woman, they had assumed she was alone. The woman was about their age, and told them she was going to get these for her grandchildren. She had four of them in her hand, and they were ten cents apiece. Four.
They had been talking for just a few minutes when a man stormed into the shop and over to their new friend. He demanded to know exactly what she was doing, why she was still in this church. 'I just want do get these for the grandbabies, they love old buildings', she told him. He told her that, in fact, she was not going to get them. They don't spend money on stupid trinkets. No one wants her gifts, anyway. She was to get in the car, right now. Then he ripped the purse from her hand and marched to the car. She was left alone. Humiliated. Without recourse. Sad.
That's why the first woman could not forget this story; because she didn't know that people like that existed. We all read the papers and see things on the news, but for a few people, that is the only time they see true evil. They don't encounter it quite so closely, and for their sake I am thankful. The lady talking to me couldn't even fathom what the other had been through. Years, decades actually, of humiliation, shame, constant grief. Did she start that way, we wondered, from childhood? Or had he eroded any sense of worth over time? My lady lived in a world so far from the other, it might just as well have been a fairy tale. She will never know what it's like to wear that abject pain like a daily sweater. To know when you wake up that there is someone right beside you who feels you are a liability and not an asset; yet somehow feels she had just enough worth to do menial labor for him the majority of her life.
So forty cents worth of postcards brought this sweet lady over to me to chat. I was so blessed to have met the woman who's husband stood beside her and helped her make her forty cent selection, but my heart still aches for the woman who wasn't 'permitted' to get hers. I have three daughters, and I know exactly which husband I pray they find. I have one son, and I also know exactly which husband I pray he will be, too.
I want them to have those little gestures in their lives, the knowledge that their spouse is right behind them, tucking in their tags and then a quick pat on the shoulder so they know they aren't alone and all is well. That they don't have to be afraid to trust them completely, that they can go forward in confidence because they are being supported. I am sad for the lady in the church, and now I can't forget her, either. I'll never meet her, never see her, never be able to give her money so she can buy those postcards. My heart aches for her perpetual heartache.
But I am thankful that I met my lady in the gift shop. That she felt compelled to share her story with me - and I don't mean the church story. I mean the story of her life; the one he shared with me by not even saying one word. :)
clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience...Colossians 3:12