It’s important to pay attention to the people you encounter, because sometimes, a messenger will find you in the most unlikely places. This is the story of one such chance meeting that occurred today in Central PA.
I had just listened to a new podcast called Grapple, which “gives voice to people living and working in distressed communities.” Today, on a road trip, we found ourselves in Mahanoy City, the first town profiled in the podcast.
We went into Rite-Aid to buy some allergy medicine and a soda. As we approached the check-out, a diminutive older woman was chatting with the clerk. She noticed we were waiting behind her and apologized. “No problem,” I replied.
She finished her transaction, turned around and looked up at us and said, “You’re not from Mahanoy City, are you?” We replied no, that we were passing through. “Oh,” she said, “How nice that you stopped here!” Then, as if she knew we’d heard the podcast, she added, “This used to be such a beautiful town!” We assured her we thought it was still lovely.
I asked our new friend what her name was. “I’m Nellie,” she said, and her smile lit up her whole face.
“I’m Meg, and this is Steve,” I replied. “Steve!” she repeated. And then, as if his name jogged a memory, she told us that her parents were immigrants from Czechoslovakia. Steve said he had learned a few phrases in Croatian, which is similar to Czech. “Dobro vece!” he said, and Nellie’s eyes twinkled even more as she translated and then returned his greetings. She said she remembered some of the language from when she was a child.
Nellie was engaging. As she talked, she would reach for our hands, touching them as if we were old friends, to emphasize her points. She told us that she was the last living of ten siblings. Her mother had had a stroke when she (her mother) was young, and Nellie had to care for some of her younger siblings. She talked about how young people have to leave the area to find work.
Nellie continued, “I’m 94 years old, and I just moved into the high-rise.” I asked if she liked living there. She said that she did, but that she had lived in her house for 67 years, so it was very different. “I’m a widow,” she added, answering a question neither of us had asked, and she remarked that she’d never had children, almost as an afterthought (though I’d have loved to hear her story).
Then, Nellie said that all she has left is her memories. “It’s important to make memories while you’re younger because eventually that’s all you’re left with.”
“That’s what we’re trying to do this weekend,” I said, and Nellie smiled at us some more.
We finally said we had to be on our way and bid Nellie farewell, thanking her for talking with us.
After we got into the car, Steve said, “She was an angel.” It felt as if she had come from another time and place to tell us what we needed to hear, at that exact moment. I had been thinking the same thing: Our encounter with Nellie was meant to happen. And in addition to her message, she gave us one more memory to treasure.