Phyllis Beveridge Nissila
I first posted this story written by my brother-in-law Gene Taylor six years ago. It continues to be my favorite Thanksgiving offering, not only because it is an ageless story of hope lost, then found, but also because in an increasingly polarized and polarizing world saturated with so much anger and violence this simple tale uplifts the spirit of anyone thinking darkness prevails. For the truth is, it needn’t, and all it takes sometimes is just one, even small, light to overcome it.
May your heart be lightened today by what continues to shine here.
The Travelers: A Thanksgiving Story
By Gene Taylor
My mother, Rosemary, was an angry person. She didn’t know why and that bothered her, not so much that she cared about how her anger affected others but that it was a facet of her being that she was not in control of.
The day I met the three travelers in this story my wife Nancy and I were on our way back from Reno where we had visited my mother at a very nice care facility. The Hospice folks and my wife, who also works in health care, had found a way to help Mom find peace on her death bed, which was our main concern. The sure-fire solution for patients with anger, anxiety, depression and pain was 20 mg of morphine accompanied by 2 mg of Valium every two hours. That med combo seemed to cure everything for Mom except for the anger.
Even experienced Hospice personnel there had rarely witnessed Mom’s kind of anger. And I was amazed and saddened by it, too. I had been hoping to be present for the magic end-of-life transition I had heard about where I might see my mother become one of us non-angry people. I was hoping she would reveal some part of the real Rosemary that I’d never seen, share some side of her I knew must be there, tell the secret of her pissed-offedness, if you will, or in some other way become genuine.
Nancy and I headed home without the kind of closure I so hoped for.
Early that Monday morning at the start of our return trip, we stopped at an AM PM Gas Station/Mini-Mart outside of Reno to fill up the gas tank and get some hot coffee on this frosty fall morning. The usual Mini-Mart crowd of construction guys were milling around. I noticed a rag-tag white pickup truck parked a short distance from the apron. It had a cardboard sign affixed to the tailgate. The handwritten lettering said something to the effect that the occupants of the truck were stranded and needed money to continue on to California.
A folded up mattress, old BBQ grill, and cardboard boxes filled the pickup bed to overflowing. It was a real “Dust Bowl look” going on. A young man, handsome, with a lean, wiry look, dressed in worn Carhartt coveralls was soliciting money near the rear of the rig; he was trying to make eye contact with the people going in the store. A couple of people walked by him and spread their arms out with palms up indicating a no-sale. In fact, I didn’t see him collect any money and frankly he wasn’t very good at it. I knew this was a common scam but he did have the look of fear and desperation, and that truck and its load did look genuine.
I was busy filling up when I noticed a young woman get out of the cab of the truck with something in a blue blanket held close to her. I thought it was a baby at first and was kind of mad that they would put a child in that position as it was very cold outside. Then I saw it was a cat! Okay, heart melting time. I walked up and gave her $10. The man came around and thanked me and immediately pulled the truck up to the pumps and began filling it with that ten spot.
They were beside our car, now, and I asked the young woman, a pretty brunette with clear eyes and a quiet manner, what her cat’s name was. She responded, “Velcro”. Clever. I got it. We exchanged smiles and I started to check my oil. The young man asked me if I thought his quarter-tank plus that $10 in gas would get him up and over the Sierras and on to Yuba City, a journey that included the infamous—and high elevation–Donner Pass, not someplace on which you wanted to be stranded in the cold. I really didn’t think he had enough.
He told me they started out from someplace in Colorado, the name of the town escapes me, with $180 hoping to make it to Yuba City where his family lives. They just ran out of money. I fished out a $20 bill and gave it to him. Immediately, the expression of fear and worry on his face vanished. He jumped around a few times and hugged me while thanking me.
From our brief interactions, it was clear they were both country folks. I loved them. They were so freaking genuine and authentic. While the young man jumped with joy, the girl just looked at me with a look of amazement as if this was the first time a stranger had ever befriended her.
We were now preparing to head off over the hill to California ourselves while they finished fueling up. The young man said, “I wish there was something I could do for you.” I told him, “You have done plenty already.”
I’m not sure he got it; perhaps he did.
I do stuff like this often but rarely do I get this kind of reward. I was still thinking about my mother and her perpetual anger, and in that moment I knew what my mother missed her entire life by being angry, which influenced her attitude toward people in need. She would not have done—and never did—anything for people like these two beautiful travelers. If I had that void in my life, it would make me angry, too.
She missed so much…
I’ll never miss that $30 but it lifted the cares of the world off that young man at least for a moment, and a moment is all we really have isn’t it?
I’ll never lose what I felt that cold morning and I doubt they will either. We all changed, in some way, just then.
Even though it was early in the day and still freezing cold, there was no ice on either the passes or bridges over them although the elevation is over 7,000 feet and the ground atop was dusted with a second-week-in-November snow. And I wondered a little about that “gift,” too…
My wife and I met up with the Mini-Mart travelers at the Donner Pass Rest Stop and I asked their names. He was Joshua and she was Haley. The cat was still Velcro.
Photo from the public domain