Sometimes we’re welcomed into another’s story in the most unexpected places and all we can do is recognize it as a gift and be a good keeper of what’s been entrusted to us.
In line at the deli of my small-town grocery store stood an elderly couple ordering ham and cheese loaf, sliced thin. I smile at the wife as I remember my own father’s love for the same combined meat and cheese between white bread.
“Is it sandwich night?” She asks me.
I turn and laugh out my answer, “ohh, yes. I have five hungry kiddos waiting in the van.”
“What’s their favorite?”
“They like turkey and salami best.” I tell her.
We chat for a few minutes as the deli worker portions into her gloved hand my pound of turkey. “A 1/2 pound of salami, as well, please.” I throw my voice strong over the glass case of golden-brown meats, the kids are waiting, and I’d hate to be skipped over by my own natural timidity. She begins the slicer again with the same repetitive motion in her wrist.
Bagged and priced she gently lays the meat on top of the case. I am just about to turn and B-line it for the Ginger ale to complete the promise I had made to the youngest for his good behavior at the library, when I hear the crackly voice of the same old woman next to me in line.
“I’ll show you this, because I like you.” She says.
I smile at her quick conclusion to befriend me as she walks slowly closer, leaning on her cart. She opens her purse and pulls out an old black and white photo. A posed picture of about 35 elementary aged school children, all in plain skirts and button-down tops, and in the center, a man with a stern looking face, a furrowed brow and a cinched in mustache that fits just under his nose. His look, familiar, but I dare not ask. She tells me to guess which one is her, but my eyes are glued on the man in the middle. I try and keep a lighthearted look not to give away my thoughts. She catches them anyway and points to her 7-year-old self, “middle row, third from the left, that’s me.” She says. “The Americans liberated us when I was 9 years old.”
I no longer need to inquire about the man, whether Hitler himself or one of his mimicking puppets, I begin to follow along with her story.
She tells me, five of her classmates were killed because they didn’t possess the distinct look of a non-Jewish person. And one child in the picture lived here in America for all her adult years after the liberation, and they remained friends until her death.
Her eyes are deep with age and tender from experience, she trusts me with the details of her past and allows me to ask questions. I try and memorize her words as she speaks, I want to be a good keeper of stories and retell them honorably.
She pulls out two more pictures. One of her standing with uncles and brother about to board the train that would take her to a camp.
The other, a joyful picture with aunts and cousins and siblings all piled on the grass of a summertime gathering. Some stretched across in the front, some crouched down on knees, all squeezing in trying to be part of the moment. Likely before the war began.
“That’s my mother.” She points to a lovely woman in the front with a big smile and womanly figure. “Beautiful”, I say.
As she touches the photos, I can see her hands are strong, her fingers twisted and gnarled. She’s a Polish woman of 80 plus years with children and grandchildren and a joyous smile when she speaks of them.
I put my hand on her arm, “you’ve had a very hard story” I tell her. Without hesitation she smiles and says, “oh, parts of it, yes...but we’re here now!”
But we’re here now...
I hold onto it and bank it away as wisdom I’ll need on days my surroundings deceive me. The visible faults and failures of life in a broken world can easily victimize the soul, if allowed. And here I stand beside a woman who’s seen more adversity than I can imagine, yet still living in the moment of a decades-old rescue.
But we’re here now, I replay in my mind after children are tucked in bed and teenage thoughts resolved and laid to rest.
Is it possible that being fully here, right now is like a big spoonful of thankful medicine? That living in the moment of our greatest deliverance keeps us continually aware of all that’s good and beautiful.
When we accept the rescue mission of Jesus’ birth for us, and do not deny his life and death and life again! Keeping it in the front of our story and not forfeiting it to a generation of those believing to be victimized by every remark and disapproval of others - we will be able to say, “but, I’m here now!” And live fully.
I round the corner of the cereal aisle, regaining my pace and focus on what I came for, but with a shifted heart.
That night we eat a simple meal of cold cuts on soft bread. Popcorn is popped and a movie picked out as we pile on couches and chairs in our pj’s. I look around the room at the faces I see every day and exhale a smile. “But we’re here now!” I down a spoonful of my own prescription.
"My life passes as swiftly as the evening shadows. I am withering away like grass." Psalm 102:11