We arrived at La Gare Montparnasse, one of Paris’ six largest train stations, after a three-hour train ride from La Rochelle. Dr. Janis, our chaperone, disembarked with us nine college students. We had spent the previous six weeks that summer of 1994 in a study abroad program, and now our adventure was almost over. One night in Paris, and we would all go our separate ways.
Right there on the platform, Janis—as we called him—caught our attention one last time with a flamboyant wave of his arms. He lowered onto all fours and kissed the quai, pronouncing himself libre of his responsibilities. Then he stood up, brushed himself off, and walked away, leaving us with our overwhelming piles of luggage.
To save our dwindling francs, we chose to take the metro instead of a taxi to the youth hostel. But we were unwise in our planning; each of us had three monstrous suitcases to manage, made heavier and more unwieldy by the added weight of purchases we had made during our stay.
We scraped together our ingenuity, inventing ways to make it through the turnstiles before they closed on us, and we devised techniques to get on and off the train in the twenty seconds the doors stood open at each stop. But despite our best plans, all but one of us made it onto the train at the first station. We darted frantic looks at each other and at our lagging friend who struggled to load her carrying cart onto the train. As she strained, red-faced, the warning buzzer sounded. Five seconds left. Two of us lunged for the door, hoping to help her board. But would we make it?
Just then, a man inside the train reached out and lifted her cart inside for her, and she scrambled on after it. The doors closed. I steadied my breathing, contemplating the close call.
When it was time for us to get off, the doors opened, and the countdown began. Twenty seconds to unload our burdens from the train. But someone removed our suitcases for us and set them on the platform. How could they have carried off those behemoth nightmares so quickly? I scanned the area, but couldn’t find the helper—or helpers—who had saved my friends and me.
After three trains, two transfers, many sets of stairs, and almost two hours of travel on the metro with our ridiculous baggage, we arrived at 151, avenue Ledru-Rollin, our clothes drenched with sweat and our hands swollen.
That evening at the Bastille Hostel, I reclined in my bottom bunk and remembered the kindness of the strangers on the train who had helped us that day. It was probably nothing for them, but their assistance had made life easier for nine traveling students.
Early August’s driving rain assaulted the pavement in the church parking lot. So many cars this Sunday morning in 2004, and I hadn’t arrived early enough for a front row spot. I pulled the car into an open space and turned off the ignition. For fifteen seconds, I considered my exit strategy. Husband was working, so I’d do this thing alone. After forming a plan and summoning the courage, I jumped out, looped the strap of the diaper bag over my shoulder, and poked my head inside the back seat.
“See how hard it’s raining, girls?” I glanced at Flicka and Ricka—my four and two year olds—in their car seats as I detached three-month-old Dicka’s infant seat from its base. Rain pelted my lower back as I worked. “Now listen. We’re going to get inside the church fast. You two hold onto me as we walk, okay?”
My oldest ones released themselves from their seats and scrambled out of the car. Flicka grabbed onto the hem of my shirt, but Ricka scuttled off toward the nearest mini pond. A vehicle rolled by a few feet from her. My heart lurched.
“Ricka, come back.” I hooked the infant seat on my arm. “I don’t want you getting hit by a car.”
My two year old looked at me. “Okay, Mama.” Then she examined the puddle again and tapped her toe into it.
Lightning split the sky, and thunder cracked. I locked the car with my gaze glued on Ricka. She scampered back to me and clutched onto the edge of my shirt. We began our trek across the parking lot, pointed for the door. But on the way, the torrent soaked us, and the baby sputtered; the canopy of the infant seat kept out the rain as well as an open window. I shook the wet hair from my face. Hair styling and makeup application was all vanity anyway, I told myself.
“Can you have thunder without lightning?” Flicka skipped at my side, tugging down my shirt with each hop.
“Hm. I don’t know.” I side-stepped a pool of water. “Maybe not?”
Ricka, distracted by another puddle, dropped her grip on me, and I tossed a prayer into the soggy, grey sky. Please let us all just get inside. We hobbled at a snail’s pace. Only twenty yards to go…
A man exited the church doors, popped open an umbrella, and bounded toward us.
“Looks like you could use a little help.” He held the umbrella above my head as he walked with us.
I laughed, imagining black lines of mascara streaking my cheeks. “You have no idea.”
During the service, I recalled the kindness of the man with the umbrella. It was likely nothing for him, but his gesture improved the day for one mom and her three kids.
One day in 2014, Husband drove down Fremont Avenue on our way to the store. He squinted at the car ahead of us. Then he flicked on the headlights, flashing them back and forth. Brights, dims. Brights, dims.
I furrowed my brow. “What?”
“They left their cell phone on their bumper.”
Before reaching the stoplight at Dowling Avenue North, the driver pulled over to the side of the road. Husband drove up behind her, put the car in park, and hopped out. He plucked the cell phone from the bumper of the vehicle and headed with it to the driver’s side. The woman rolled down her window and spoke with him. Husband handed her the phone, strode back to our car, and slid into the driver’s seat.
“How did it go?” I said.
He shrugged. “She was happy.”
Later that day, I thought of Husband’s kindness toward a stranger. It was nothing for him, but maybe his help made life less stressful for the woman who got her phone back.
A hand to lift a heavy suitcase off the metro, an umbrella over the head of a struggling mom, willingness to stop long enough to return a cell phone. The world brims with people’s small deeds of kindness. They don’t make the news, and they aren’t dazzling enough to be captured for YouTube. But for the giver and receiver, those little actions tear apart boredom, shake up apathy, and dent a person’s jaded outlook.
Big opportunities to save someone may never come. But every day the small needs of others speckle our paths and invite us to act.
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*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.