Greetings Where no Kindness is

The death of my sister less than four months ago keeps reminding me of a poem by William Wordsworth written toward the end of the 18th century and entitled “Tintern Abbey.” Speaking of the joys he shared with his own younger sister, Wordsworth also reflects on the experiences in all our lives that sometimes shatter such joys–among them, as he says, “greetings where no kindness is.”

“Greetings” can be empty, harmless formalities such as “so how are you today?” These may be meant well, but you hear no convincing kindness in them. But there are other greetings like “I was so saddened to hear of your sister’s death” in which, formal though they are, we can still hear genuine kindness.

I had two experiences last week, one of unkindness and the other of kindness. The first was in a supermarket where, after picking up a few articles, I spotted a cashier in his early twenties on the verge of closing up by turning off his light. When I asked him if he could ring me up anyway, he answered that he had only three minutes left in his shift and that finishing up with me would take more time than that. There was one of Wordsworth’s cold greetings, I thought, empty of kindness. So I made my way to another aisle reflecting on the countless times I had asked the same question of other cashiers who, after turning off their light for the benefit of the customer behind me, took my order gladly. Was this young cashier in for a hot date that night? Did he first have to make dinner for a bedridden mother? Or have the gods of supermarket management come up with some new rules that have forbidden the old kindnesses of cashiers to their customers? In any event, one thing was certain. That cashier wanted out of that store, and fast.

A few days later I found myself in the same supermarket, this time blessed with a calm, middle aged cashier who packed my order and handled my debit card purchase with wondrous efficiency and, though it was clearly the end of a long day for her, a kindly farewell smile. I could not help notice, however, how she kept her eyes pinned on the customer after me who, as soon as he saw her light go off, asked if she had time for him. I have eight minutes, she replied confidently; so c’mon.

I’m not entirely sure, but it looked like my guess of a few days earlier about new rules governing the end of a cashiers’ day may have had some basis. Could it be that exceeding the allotted time for a shift required that the cashier be paid overtime and that too many such gracious excesses, which might well cost the company significant money, could threaten that person’s job? Or was it simply that a long record of too many minutes on a shift would reduce the possibility of a raise?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, which may be irrelevant or vary with the company in question. What I do know is that I can no longer count on a kindness I was in the habit of assuming for the better part of my adult life. Capitalism these days is producing more jobs. But is that good news squeezing a little more each day out of our humanity?

Getting Through to a Parent with Dementia: Talking and Touching

My mother, who died at 83, suffered from dementia in her last year or two. Only forty-seven when my father died of cancer, and still full of vitality, she finally met a fellow named Ted. Ted gave her many years of companionship until an illness forced me to move mom from Buffalo, our hometown, to Philadelphia, where I worked.

Ted died in Buffalo about a year before mom died in Philadelphia. When his family called to tell me of his death, I felt I had to find a way to break the news to mom even though by then her dementia left her unable or, I sometimes thought, unwilling, to acknowledge anything I said to her, even by nodding her head.

I began by asking my mom if she remembered Ted and, as usual, received not a look or a word that indicated she understood what I had said. So I repeated my question and, once again, nothing. Her lunch, almost none of it eaten, still sat on a tray table next to her armchair, and something possessed me to move the table and tray aside and take both her hands in mine as gently as I could. Looking as straight at her as I ever had, I asked mom once again, this time with a special softness, if she remembered Ted. And while once again she gave no sign of hearing me, I thought I saw something in her eyes that flickered recognition. So I repeated my question again, and as I did the tears began falling down her cheeks. My few softened words had apparently gotten through to her, and we looked at each other with as much affection, I think, as we ever had, or ever would, even though (or perhaps because) our “conversation” was about somebody else. But it was less my few words, I think, that started up her tears than the feel of my hands in hers and hers in mine.