Tragic stories were heard in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Naturally, there were plenty of opportunities, too, for acts of kindness. My friend’s tiny but safe New York apartment, which sits empty when she and her partner are in Toronto, was well appreciated by the three displaced couples who were welcomed to cram themselves into it. Another colleague took a leadership role in running a shelter. Me, I didn’t play a part in helping anyone weather the storm. But a couple of days after the wind blew through town, I did stop on the street for an old woman who needed my help.
Actually, first I passed her on the sidewalk as we walked in opposite directions. We smiled politely at each other like we were just two ordinary pedestrians – one, a brisk walker on her way to buy a snack from the corner store, and the other, strolling more slowly, toting a cane and dragging an eight-foot branchy section of tree behind her like she does this all the time. This piece of found fallen birch was obviously a casualty of the hurricane. The question was, what did she want with it? As I walked on, I pondered the possibilities. She was quite a beautiful older woman. I imagined she had the face of an artist and that she would display the birchwood in her glorious front flower garden, or create some kind of nature-inspired sculpture. I admired her for spotting loveliness somewhere unexpected.
I left the store thinking these romantic thoughts, turned back in the direction of home, and easily caught up with the woman – who was travelling at the speed of a snail – a few minutes later.
I almost passed her again. But then: “I have to ask,” I blurted out, waving my hand toward the wood. (I’m sure my daughter would tell you in embarrassed tones how often I interrogate total strangers.)
Instead of responding to my implied question, the woman smiled, nodded, and held the end of the branch out to me. In heavily accented, broken English, she made it clear that yes, she would appreciate the help I was offering her, thank you very much. Her house was on the next corner.
That’s when I realized she was struggling beneath her burden. So I stepped up, kicking myself for not noticing earlier that she needed a hand. As we walked together, me hauling the chunk of tree and she able to walk a bit faster now, with the help of her cane, I tried to ask my question again.
She didn’t speak much English, but I finally established that her plans for the beautiful birch wood was to burn it to ashes. Yes, she’d been happy to find this treasure trove of perfectly free firewood. She couldn’t wait to put it to practical good use.
So she wasn’t a free-spirited artist after all. But she did freely express her gratitude. And if I helped a tiny bit to keep her warm over the upcoming wintry nights, that can’t be a bad thing, can it?