A Broken Frame
I want to be famous to shuffling men who smile while crossing streets, sticky children in grocery lines, famous as the one who smiled back. I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous, or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, but because it never forgot what it could do.
-Naomi Shihab Nye, excerpt from “Famous”
The stranger’s unkempt mane, fried and frizzy, invaded my line of vision as I perused the shelves. Her raspy voice exposed years of tar and soot settled in her lungs. She tirelessly recounted details of her last trip to Florida and cursed the hurricane that cancelled her upcoming travel plans. Her irritating small talk was inescapable.
“These prices are high, but just wait. They’ll drop come Thanksgivin’.”
This prediction annoyed me. I was not bargain hunting; I was there on a mission. A friend and I are preparing for a writing workshop - how tiny scenes become memoirs. I was shopping for second-hand picture frames, preferably one inch, to be used as prompts for writing. As I sifted through trinkets and keepsakes once donated and discarded, my body language clearly projected disinterest in the stranger’s rambling. Yet, she lingered.
I reached for a pile of coasters that blocked my view on a crowded shelf. A tacky, porcelain frame slipped from atop the pile I had collected. It shattered on contact with the concrete floor.
“Oh!” I gasped. Amidst the shattered glass, a yellow sticker stared up at me. $.50. I was leaning down to collect the broken remains when a gentle hand touched my shoulder.
“I’m so sorry. I know you really liked that one.”
It was the “annoying” stranger. Her tone softened to meet my mood. She knelt down beside me. Without thinking, I looked back into her eyes.
“I really did.”
It was true. I had lost the perfect frame. It was exactly what I needed, but now it was broken beyond repair.
I gathered my purchases and headed for the register. No other words were exchanged with the stranger. Yet, here I sit weeks later contemplating her unfiltered kindness. I am not sure I have ever experienced such an authentic show of unsolicited concern from a total stranger.
On that busy afternoon, searching through the discarded treasures of that thrift shop, a stranger took the time to notice my hurt and sit with me. She did not know me. She didn’t know why I cared about that particular frame or how I planned to use it to make the perfect literary metaphor for framing our life in tiny snapshots.
But she understood loss and disappointment. She understood that something I cared about was now gone.
I wasn't shopping for a life lesson at the ReStore, but that is exactly what I found. I was consumed with planning a writing workshop to inspire participants to change the world, all while I was ignoring the most important point. The way to become a better writer is to become a better person. This stranger reminded me to be the one who smiles back and never forgets what she can do.
"Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible."