A Remembered Kindness
I can still recall the bitter cold night and how much colder the tear streaks on my face felt.
All of the snow we’d gotten, and the clear, cold night that followed. How warm I felt in our
house until the phone rang.
Tonight, I was struck by the vivid recollection of that night 24 years ago. I wrote about that
night on one other occasion, for an assignment in college. The assignment was an autobiography,
so my focus then was my family.
And now I feel charged to report an insignificant detail of that night. Because it took whole
minutes for my brain to understand, days to follow up, and decades to reflect on such
thoughtfulness on a night of such shock and grief.
From my autobiography, Spring 1999.
January 1999. I am making somebody's idea of dinner that would probably only pass for such
under my qualifications. The phone rings; it's Uncle Dennis.
"Hello, Trisha? Did you hear about Grandpa?" In the background I hear Andy say, "How would she
"No," I say, "What happened." It’s more of a statement than a question. I know something is
wrong. I just don't know what.
"Grandpa is dead."
I almost crumple to the floor. "W-what?"
"Grandpa died." I have to sit. Uncle Dennie goes on. I only hear bits and pieces of it; it was
like he was talking to me from the moon:
Uncle Dennie was out plowing.... Grandpa's car was in the ditch... He called and sent
Andy to find him... Andy looked and didn't find him... Uncle Zeke came over to Williamson's to
find out what was taking Grandpa so long in watering the beef... Uncle Zeke found Grandpa's body
still warm on the snow outside the barn. Thought to be a heart attack...
I burn dinner. …Probably a good thing.
I call my dad at the office, and he knows. I call my mom who just left for South Carolina two days
earlier to spend some time with her sister; she is shocked. I call my brother in St. Paul, where
he is a junior at the university there; same response.
Then Dad calls again. "Why don't you meet us over at Williamson's?" It’s phrased as a question,
but it is Dad’s way of saying, “Come.” I don't want to, but I will. I drive over and am met by the
Sheriff’s squad car and the hugs of family members in the driveway. Aunt Kathi tells me everyone
else is in the house as she and Uncle Zeke leave to begin milking. They put it off for as long as
possible, but cows don't wait for too long.
I walk in the front door and nearly trip over the body of my grandfather, lying on the front rug,
covered by a tablecloth, nothing but his brand-new Northerner boots showing. Not more than a month
earlier I bought those boots at Farm ‘n’ Fleet for Dad to give to Grandpa for Christmas. Size 9 1/2,
insulated to the ankle, with a tie at the shin. We didn't think he ever wore them until that day.
I gasp and jump to the side of the entryway. Then I cry. Because, suddenly, it’s real. Dad watches
me closely and does what he can to console me in his own ways... that are so much like Grandpa's.
Later that night all immediate family members available gather at the farm to discuss funeral
arrangements, who called whom with the news, who is left to call, and what each one of us can do to
make this as painless as possible. We cry a little and laugh a little... Memories come out when
family gets together, regardless of the occasion. We are a family.
What I didn’t focus on for this assignment, but have never forgotten, was a teddy bear. Two teddy
After I saw Grandpa’s boots in the house, the tears started. With nothing more we could do there,
we all slowly filed out of the house trying to figure out what to do next. The Sherriff was wrapping
up his official business at the scene and went to the trunk of his cruiser. He pulled out a teddy
bear and handed one to me and one to my cousin Allison. Simply made, floral patterned material, but
stuffed just right to comfort and slightly distract two grief-stricken young ladies. Those bears
caught our tears and kept us a few degrees warmer.
When the Sherriff turned to leave 15 or so minutes later, we tried to hand him back the bears.
“No,” he said, “they’re for you. To keep.”
“Really?” we asked.
“A group of church ladies makes them for when I get called to scenes involving kids. Something to hold
Days later, Allison and I reflected on this with my mom, and she suggested that we write a thank you.
We didn’t know whom to write it to, and she speculated that by sending it to the Sherriff’s office,
that those lovely church ladies would get it.
I no longer have that bear. After a time, it became a symbol-- a reminder of loss. I donated it to
Goodwill. But the kindness I kept with me all these years. The forethought of those wonderful ladies
to consider creating something (many somethings) so simple, yet so profoundly comforting to our basic
humanness for events no one wants to willingly think about…
And then I think about the other bears in that trunk, the other kids that held them. I reflect,
fleetingly, on the horribleness that happens daily, and know that January night, 1999, was not the
worst night ever. By a long shot. My grandpa died doing what he loved: farming. He didn’t die in a
hospital. He didn’t waste away from cancer. He wasn’t killed in his prime; he’d lived a good, long
life. He was still driving that little grey car that he loved. He found a soft snowbank on a perfectly
cold typical winter night and died with his boots on that we bought for him.
There are worse things.
The power of a genuine and unexpected kindness can be anywhere from life-altering to lifesaving. I’ve
been on the receiving end of such kindness at least 5 times. The last time was a kind word from a
salesclerk at Walmart who could just tell I was having a Bad Day.
It is my belief that these most profound moments of kindness are borne through the experiences of the
giver; through our own hardships do we understand the importance and the timing of such kindness. It
is only through surviving those experiences that the kindnesses we give can truly be genuine. Otherwise it’s
not empathy, it’s just sympathy. I don’t want to be pitied. I want someone or something to remind me
that I’m stronger than this moment and I won’t be broken if only for the simple reason that time marches
on. There are always worse things.
Since that kindness at Walmart, and the return of my confidence and inner strength, I have tried to always
be aware of those around me. Offer help to the 80-year-old lady trying to reach something on the top shelf,
amuse the 2-year-old of the tired mom in front of me in line, or chat with a newly-divorced woman behind me
in line to pick up her dinner because she has no pots and pans at her new apartment yet.
It’s so easy to focus on the negative; it’s everywhere. As I’m writing this, it’s snowing and 20 days until
Christmas. Think back to that snowy night a random stranger pulled your car out of the ditch. Think about
that word of encouragement that kept you going when you didn’t think you could go any more. Think about that
compliment you received that made you realize for the first time that your inner strength is visible to others.
Remember a kindness.