Eulogy for the Tiny Relationship
Life was full of tiny relationships before the pandemic. They were like movie shorts, little bite-sized moments of connection that hinted at possibilities and gave us warm feelings, fleeting but restorative as we slogged through the mundanities of a normal day. They were born of encounters with random strangers who inhabit our orbit, but don’t take up permanent residence in the landscape of our psyches. Like the teenage boy who sacks groceries at the Kroger in my small town. Because the store makes him wear a name badge, I have the advantage, and can lob out a bid for conversation by saying, “Hi, Drew, how’s your day going?”, and there isn’t much he can do to ignore me. Often the Drews of my world appreciate being seen as real people and not just flesh covered robots, so they respond and lob a question back at me. “I’m okay. How ‘bout you?” Bam. A tiny relationship has just occurred. These days Drew and I are both wearing masks and trying not to get too close to each other. He can’t even see me smiling at him.
Other tiny relationships happen less intentionally, like my maybe not so tiny relationship with Nancy, the woman who washes my hair when I go to the salon for a highlight. Nancy and I might never have found each other out in the real world but I look forward to talking to Nancy about as much as I look forward to being blonde again for a few months. With my neck over the sink and my head in her hands, we brag about how smart our grandchildren are and talk recipes, like how to make the best fried green tomatoes: buttermilk for the bath, not sweet milk. She is the only other person in the world who washes my hair. I miss her.
Tiny relationships sometimes sneak up on us. Sometimes we don’t really welcome them but get roped in by circumstance. Sometimes they change our lives.
I was in Louisville, KY on a blustery Spring morning in 2019, the before times. As I approached the corner of Broadway and Third, a woman with kinky grey hair and baggy blue pants stood beside a grocery cart filled with plastic bags, water bottles, and a worn woolen blanket. She was agitated and kept walking toward the crosswalk, then veering back under the awning that ran along the ground floor of the Brown Hotel. I was a student at Spalding University, and like Drew, my grocery store buddy, had on my name badge as I walked to class. The woman rushed over to me and said,
“Cynthia, I need you to help me!”
“Sure, what do you need?”, I replied a bit confused by hearing her use my name.
“I need you to help me cross the street. I’m afraid of the wind.”
We are disarmed when someone uses our name. We should all, every day, walk around with name badges on, large ones with bold lettering so people can read them from far off. Perfect strangers will seem like friends. Especially now that we can’t touch people, now that we are supposed to keep six feet away from everyone, name badges would make us feel less afraid.
“Hey Cynthia,” the person pumping gas across from me might say.
“Good morning Joe,” I’d reply, and there you go, a tiny relationship sparks through the gloom.
The woman in Louisville grabbed my arm as the pedestrian crossing sign turned green. We had twenty seconds to make it across Broadway before the cars on Third would be unleashed.
“I’m afraid of the wind,” she said again as her eyes scanned the sky.
“What’s your name?”, I asked as we started across the street.
“Elaine,” she replied, not looking at me. Elaine’s attention was on the Out There, the untamable, uncontrollable wind. I was just an anchor keeping her tethered to the ground. I was her kite string.
“Well, Elaine, you are doing great. The wind is strong today, but we are almost across.”
Elaine was not comforted. A huge gust swept down on us, and blew her hair back off her face as if an electric current had just passed through her body. She pushed her cart more quickly, as if she could outrun her fear, her grip on my arm constant and firm.
We reached the curb just as the crimson hand signaling STOP began flashing.
“We made it Elaine. Are you okay?”
I wanted to ditch my classes, walk to the bagel shop with Elaine and buy us both breakfasts. I wanted to hear her story, discover how she navigated homelessness and aging and the damn, relentless, wind. This woman knew things I needed to learn.
“Thank you, Cynthia,” Elaine said as our fellow cross walkers buzzed past us. She pointed her cart going east on Main and took off, keeping as close to the buildings as she could. I watched her for a moment, disappointed, and inspired.
Elain has likely had many similar encounters, living as a homeless person where every day is filled with challenges my privilege blinds me to, but my tiny relationship with Elaine changed my life. When something happens for which I feel unprepared and anxious, Elaine’s permission to ask for help remind me that, I too, must do things every day that scare me. I too, can ask for help. There is much in the world right now that frightens me. Things that feel as violent and powerful and as out of my control as the raging wind. I need the tiny relationships with people in my world as a buffer.
One danger of the pandemic is that we begin to view the strangers we meet with suspicion. Could they be infected? Will they come too close to me? What I want to think when I meet a stranger is, What burden are they bearing? What are they offering to me, to the world? What might we create together?
I’ll keep talking to the Drews of my world, and hope for more Elaines to appear. I’ll speak up, so our words can reach each other through the fabric that keeps us safe. I will not give up my tiny relationships and I will rejoice when, someday, we can reach out and take the arm of a stranger. The wind is strong, but we are almost across.