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Jett Superior laid this on you on || October 30, 2001 || 11:16 am

So, back to my own personal ‘Road To Damascus’ story, as I promised.

School had just broken for the year, we had just returned from our yearly family vacation to the beach and I was due to take Sam and Scout to my parents’ house in Memphis for their yearly two-week visit with my mom and dad. After an extended maternity leave with Mathias, we were pretty strapped for cash, so I took off without benefit of a credit card or checkbook for backup. I thought nothing of this little detail, as I’ve never really encountered an emergency while travelling and we would be near family anyway.

The road trip involved a ten-day timeline in which I would drive through Mississippi and Arkansas, staying a couple of days here and there with assorted aunts and uncles who hadn’t gotten to see the kids for awhile. The first few days passed uneventfully, but on the sixth or seventh day we awoke at my Aunt Trish’s house to find that Mathias had what appeared to be the first stages of pinkeye.

No sweat; I called the pediatrician back home and he quite promptly called in a scrip to Wal-Mart for some antibiotic eyedrops for the then 7-month-old baby.

After a couple of hours, my uncle Romey took the older two kids and their cousins swimming. I planned to take the baby with to Wal-mart, spend my last couple of bucks for stuff we needed on the road and the gas to get there, pick up the prescription and bring Mathias back home for lunch and a nap.

I filled the tank at the nearby filling station and walked into Wal-Mart. I stopped at the pharmacy first, and was kind of surprised to find that the medicine wasn’t ready, but they promised to have it within minutes, so I went to get juice and fruit and a couple of other things with my remaining eight dollars. I checked out then entered the pharmacy, which was situated right in front of the checkouts. The eyedrops had been dispensed and I pleasantly handed over Mathias’ insurance card, expecting to be on my way in a couple of minutes.

The elfin older woman studied the card, clucked her tongue and then asked me to wait a moment. I nodded my agreement, smiling affably as she took the card to the portly, white-haired and -bearded pharmacist who bore an uncanny resemblance to Colonel Sanders (only he had bushier hair than our chicken magnate). They conferred for a moment, and the woman brought the card back to me, saying that they could not accept the insurance and it would be 12 dollars. Not panicking and not wanting to raise a fuss or cause a scene, I quietly explained that I was 6 hours from home, had just spent every penny I possessed and had no alternate form of payment. Even if I were to return the items that I had just bought, I would still be four dollars short. When I pressed for an explanation as to why the pharmacist nixed the card I had, I was told that the insurance was too difficult to collect from. I asked the lady behind the counter to tell the pharmacist that I would like to speak with him for a moment, and when she returned, she told me that he was simply to busy to break away.

There were three other women that were working there and they began to watch what was unfolding with a keen, dispassionate interest. I asked Elfin Lady nicely if she could possibly explain my current predicament to Mr. Pharmacist and she asked me to wait a moment.

The man did not even deign to look at me, look at my precious round-headed child before he emphatically shook his head no. I asked one of the other ladies to inquire about billing me in some fashion, pulling out my driver’s license and social security card, but that was met with a negative response, as well.

It is a very, very repulsive feeling to know that your child needs something, really needs it, and you cannot provide. My despair was shifting to biting anger at the fact that the man, who would not even acknowledge my presence, was being so petty over twelve dollars. Twelve dollars that could, quite literally, affect my young son’s eyesight. My tendency to get unruly in such situations didn’t surface this time, perhaps because at the crux of this particular situation was the sweet-faced little roundheaded thing that sat in the grocery cart, playing with my keys. I turned to leave, then headed back into the store to find the manager.

I briskly explained my need for the store manager, not going overmuch into the details, to the head cashier, who set about finding the manager for me. I was approached some 10 minutes later by a tall, athletic-looking gentleman with a kind face. We shook hands, I identified myself and told him that I was in need of his assistance in this matter. I gave him my I.D. and the insurance card and he went away to the pharmacy to see what he could do. This being a weekday, the store wasn’t really busy and my story had apparently made the rounds through the employee chain quite briskly.

A slim, pretty black cashier who was nearby said, “Don’t you worry, honey, he’s a good man. This is gone get taken care of.” With this admonition, I was surprised by his admission that his hands were tied when he returned. He was called away momentarily and asked that I wait until he came back.

When he approached me again, it was with a tender smile, and he told me that the store operator, who was getting off of work and picking up her own prescriptions, had heard about my predicament and wished to pay for my son’s eyedrops. The store manager led me back over to the pharmacy in order to meet Frances, my angel of mercy. I followed meekly, as I was accustomed to being the giver and not the recipient.

When he approached a lovely older black woman and she turned, he said, “Frances, this is the young lady. Elizabeth, this is Frances _________.”

Oh God, how stoic I usually am. Seeing this black lady with her look of tenderness toward me amidst the sea of white faces observing the scene, white faces that hadn’t given two fucks about my baby’s need of medication, suddenly tore at me and I welled over. As the tears began to pour, I moved toward her and she enveloped me in a hug as I croaked out a thank you. I just kept saying thank you, and somewhere in there I offered up an apology. She patted me and looked into my eyes and smiled broadly. Then she turned away and said, “How much, May?” to Elfin Lady, who gave her the total of her prescriptions and mine. All the while, I looked at the floor, my thoughts careening around my brain and crashing into one another, as I bit back huge sobs.

She led me out of the pharmacy toward the doors before handing me the scrip, and she embraced me again while I cried quietly but freely. She didn’t know that I was crying so fiercely because I never, ever expected to be aided by a person of color. She didn’t know I was crying because she had crushed a lifetime of closet bigot training with one small twelve-dollar deed of kindness. She didn’t know I was crying from shame, not at having been assisted in my time of need, but at the fact that I had used the word ‘nigger’ so freely and copiously throughout my life in regards to black people. nigger, Nigger, NIGGER….what a horrible and ugly word I view it as now, because of the context that my entire life had framed it in.

“Honey, don’t cry,” she said to me, pulling away. “I have four grown daughters, three of whom live way off. I’d like to know that if they or my grandbabies are ever in need, someone would help them. So you see, you are my daughter today.” And I wanted to tell her. I wanted to tell her so badly that I had been this ugly person for so long and she had single-handedly shifted my perception, but the sobs kept pushing back the words and I couldn’t form them properly. I tried and tried. As I calmed, we took our leave and she grasped my hand warmly in both of hers. After she turned to go, I felt the money that remained in my hand and stupidly looked down with understanding dawning…

“Hey, Mrs. Frances, no….” She waved me off, not turning. “Take those other two out for a hamburger!”

In my hand was fifty dollars. A hamburger, Frances? I began to protest again, but then recalled the words my mother had spoken to me when I was much younger and very pampered.

To deprive someone of the ability to give a gift, Beth, to be a poor recipient, is as big a sin as not being a giver yourself.” I closed my mouth and tears continued to roll down my face. As a matter of fact, they mapped a river down my cheeks the whole way back to my aunt’s house.

When I arrived, Trish asked me what was wrong and I relayed the tale. She asked in the midst of it why I hadn’t called her and that question dumbfounded me, the cheerleader for common sense. I couldn’t answer her. Uh, too simple, maybe? Or maybe I wasn’t supposed to call her and that’s why it never occurred to me, as it normally would have.

Going on to finish the story, I ticked off the names of two of the women behind the counter who were friends of our family. (“Ooooh, don’t think that I won’t have a few choice words for that bitch the next time I see her at the [country] club!!” Aunt Trish fumed)

“I know they didn’t recognize me, they haven’t seen me since elementary school, but still,” I emphatically said, “all those white people and none made a move to understand or to work with me….and a black lady did….”

I come from a family that is well-connected in their community, aunts and uncles alike are respected, comfortably-situated business owners and community leaders. I am a pseudo-daughter to most all of them, as they have male children.

My aunt immediately sat down and penned a letter which was sent to Wal-Mart’s corporate offices, Frances’ district manager and her store manager. My cousin, an editor for the local paper, published a full page that copied the letter’s contents and proclaimed in large type, “FRANCES, YOU ARE AN ANGEL. THANK YOU FOR CARING.” Frances gets free gas once a month, courtesy of my uncle, who owns several stations in the area. She receives flowers once a month from my aunt, who is the local powerhouse florist. My caterer aunt periodically sends her free lunch coupons and delivers a free cake to Frances on her birthday each year (which has been a couple, now). Free drycleaning from another uncle. These aunts and uncles were have-nots coming up, so as well as being givers themselves, they have an immense appreciation for those that quietly fill a perceived need.

I want to say that dropping my blinders is my payback to Frances, but it was really her gift to me. All told, not a bad return on a compassionate, respectful $62.00 investment, wouldn’t you say?

Nobody worked it out »

Don´t be shy. Lay it on me.

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