Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Unparalleled Generosity at an Unforgettable Meal

Sitting alone at a restaurant table for four, I felt isolated enough. The frightening realization that I couldn't communicate in Guatemala only sharpened the feeling. My husband had established me at a language school the day before and then left for business elsewhere in the country. I was on my own. It was a stretch for a Midwestern US gringa, out of place and conspicuous in this common café.

So I had chosen a spot near its open entrance door, where I ate looking outward into the sunshine. But my decision to turn my back on my fellow diners made me the first target for a tiny, indigenous woman in traditional garb who entered from the street with an outstretched hand, a baby on her shoulder and a toddler in tow. Shocked by this sudden, unexpected personal encounter in a public place, I stiffly shook my head just ever-so-slightly, indicating "no" with eyes wide. But as she moved on, I shifted a bit in my chair to see from the corner of my eyes what the other diners would do. The men at the table next to me extended some small coins to her, as did the next table. I had seen enough.

My eyes dropped before me. There the remnants of my noon meal lay disheveled. I had saved the largest piece of chicken to take home for later, along with a pile of tortillas I was equally unable to consume. I don't need that food, I thought. A plan emerged. I began wrapping it in paper napkins, watching meanwhile for her exit.

As she passed me on her way to the door, I signaled to the little entourage. Wordlessly, I offered the food, letting my face communicate my somewhat embarrassed intent. Realization dawned on her. Now her eyes were the ones to widen--with amazement and joy. Her face melted in gratitude. Our eyes met in a moment that seemed to last longer than clock time.

But then another shift in mood again caught me off-guard. The woman hesitated and smiled as if to say, "Please don't think me greedy." I realized to my horror that she was shyly indicating that she would be pleased to also receive the chicken bones from my plate.

Floored, I scrambled to wrap them too, and hastily placed them in her hands. I don't remember that we were able to say much to each other. She was effusive with "Gracias" and with smiles. Then she turned to go on her way. Her boy was still in tow, like a little duckling, directly trailing her.

Even in his scramble to keep up with mom, he managed to turn his head backward to me as he exited, beaming me a smile that filled his little face. Ten years later, the memory of his awe-filled eyes can summon tears. With a child's unvarnished simplicity, he broadcast an unmistakable departing message: You must be a really wonderful person!

In his gaze, I realized that this had been, for them, an act of unparalleled generosity. I felt affirmed--and yet at the same time inadvertently exposed as fabulously wealthy, and thereby, perhaps somehow condemned. They, in turn, had gifted me with a dining experience that I hope I will never forget.


One Fly said...

For some reason you were thinking about this time 10 years ago once again and it is very touching.

What I find sad is that almost all the people in this country including the ones that pass the laws do not have a clue about the world we live in.

thailandchani said...

What a wonderful story.. and a wonderful memory!


Lisa said...

How beautiful. What a kindness you showed and I love how it was returned to you through that little guy's expression.

Zach said...

Billie, this is such a touching event.

betmo said...

it makes one realize how truly blessed we are when we can afford to be so generous :) we do live in a rich country and sometimes it's easy to forget that as we grumble through our daily lives and fret about what we don't have. a single act of kindness can have a lasting impact on another person forever- and i do think that the bleep bleeps in power or in big business would do well to come out of their ivory towers and see what the real world is like.

great post.

Border Explorer said...

Sincere thanks to everyone for your comments. I'm still processing this incident, and your responses help me in the process. I appreciate it so much.

@One Fly: Last week I presented a breakout session I titled "Eating for a Better Planet." That got me thinking about food and social & economic justice, so I bet that's why this incident is in my heart.
Like you, I'm sad at the state of the world. Unfortunately, though I should know something about the world we live in, it is too easy to forget the truth. People like you who "have a clue" support me to remember. Thanks.

@ThailandChani: You are such a wonderful person and support to my inner growth. Thanks for your comment.

@Lisa: I think what's hardest to me about this incident was that giving the woman the garbage off my plate meant the world to her. Probably the kindness part was when I started treating her like a human being. The child's reaction told me that they are more used to negative responses. Thanks for your lovely comment. (I've been hanging out on Facebook way more than Blogger!)

@Zach: I love hearing from you. You just read a chunk of my soul.

@Betmo--my soul-sister, thank you! Your comments are superb, as always. That little boy's loving backword gaze (as he was weaving his way through the cafe tables on his unsteady legs!) was an unknowing kindness to me. I completely agree that the "powers" keep themselves insulated from the world's reality. And I, who have been exposed to it, forget waaay too often.

Dianne said...

I read the story twice because it is so well written from your heart and because it filled me with a peaceful, happy, sadness - peaceful because there is such connection
happy to know there are people who see/feel this - you, the woman, the boy, your readers
and sadness that we all can't just find a way to better share

an average patriot said...

Excellent Billie
I would have given her the meal and a seat too. Makes you wonder how they are doing today doesn't it? You're a good one B!

Border Explorer said...

Dianne, thank you! Your comment--just like you--so personal and thoughtful, so real and truthful. It is a gift to me.

Jim, you are so good. Inviting them to sit with me would have been primo. I'm sure I would never have done anything at that time as unconventional as order them a meal. I was so ungrounded in that moment that I don't remember that I even stood to greet her. As I recall the incident, I remained seated throughout. Just another reminder to me of how (mis)perceptions influenced the interaction. [And heaven only knows how they are today.] Thanks for your comment!

an average patriot said...

You know Billie, I was always one to help everyone and so isn't my son that is helping me now. I use to want to take everyone in then I started worrying about them killing me in my sleep or something. We all do what we can I guess. Thanks for being you!

claire bangasser said...

Thank you, Billie.

Carol said...

Very beautiful. I can feel the gratitude. Thank you, Billie.

Border Explorer said...

Thanks, Claire and Carol, for sharing this with me.

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

This is such a moving story, and I am so grateful that you shared it.

Freida Bee, MD said...

An important moment. I'm sure had they asked you would have offered them more, but sometimes we are caught off-guard and miss opportunities to give to others. I'm glad you didn't miss this one.

D.K. Raed said...

so many others wouldn't have even noticed what exactly was taking place behind or beside them while they ate. your eyes were open and so were you. I think this incident involves TWO good people ... you, and the woman who was doing whatever was necessary in order to survive and take care of her little one. you shared a meal on the road of life and your reflection on it 10-yrs later is testimony to the the ripples it created ... and still creates!