History tends to favor the grand sweeping gesture, the disruptive revolution, the momentous event, the Big Person. We all know about Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, the Roman slave revolt led by Spartacus, Columbus’s (re)discovery of the Americas, and Sir Isaac Newton. To name a few.

What we don’t know is, for example…

  • whether, on August 28, 1963, a single mother in Washington, D.C. secretly packed a lollipop in her son’s lunchbox as a school-time surprise
  • whether in 71 BC, a Roman cobbler let his apprentice leave early for the day, to visit his ailing grand­mother
  • whether on October 12, 1492, a native woman on an island in the Bahamas sung her sick child a soothing song, just before the sails of the Santa María, the Pinta and the Santa Clara appeared over the eastern horizon
  • whether the midwife who assisted Hannah Ayscough in child­birth on December 25, 1642, kindly reassured her that premature little Isaac would surely go on to become a strapping young man

It’s the little details of life—like the made-up ones you’ve just read—that are lost in the maelstrom of history. And I firmly believe that it’s those little details that matter most.

Antwerp Again

The reason this idea came to mind was the same trip to Antwerp I’ve written about before—so consider this article a sequel of sorts.

Specifically, I’m thinking about the dinner we had just before we started the drive back home. Not the food, which was excellent. Nor the venue, which was classy. Nor the hot-air hand dryer hidden inside the water tap, which freaked us all out and made us giggle.

No, I’m thinking about a little round table near our own, on a slightly elevated dais, where two women were seated together.

They were there when we arrived, and they were still there when we left. They had a lot to talk about. While I couldn’t make out what they were saying, I’d figured this much out by the time our dinner was over. They were a mother and daughter, and something was dividing them. The latter (in her thirties) would gestic­ulate, sigh, insist, lean forward, despair. The former (in her fifties) pleaded, listened, leaned back, explained, agonized.

Again, I have no idea what any of this was about—apart from the word “mama,” which gave away their relationship. But two things were clear: they were both unwilling to concede their positions, and they were both unwilling to give up and walk away.

Love can be a formi­dable ocean to navigate.

How I Bought My Lottery Ticket

When it came time for me to pay for our meal, I made a choice to play the kindness lottery. You see, I may have never ignited a rebellion or discovered new laws of physics, but I do believe that kindness matters. A lot.

A small act of kindness can have profound reper­cus­sions, but there are no guarantees. Many kindnesses end up being incon­se­quential, so it’s a bit like playing a lottery. But thinking of this mother-and-daughter pair, I decided to buy a ticket anyway.

This ticket came in the form of a serving of tarte Tatin from the restaurant’s dessert menu. I asked the waiter at the cash register to add it to our bill, and then to serve it at that little round table near our own, with two forks, telling the ladies seated there that it was a gift from a stranger, to be enjoyed together.

Delicious! (source)

On our way back to our car, I took one last look at their table from the street—and that was the last I knew of the matter.

Did I Win?

I have no idea what happened next.

Did the waiter even serve them their tarte Tatin? Probably. Were they surprised? Very likely. Did they eat it? Possibly. Did it spark a conver­sation about what kind of stranger would do such a thing, and could they perhaps do something kind for each other, too? (This is the Grand Prize I was going for, of course.) Who knows.

In other words: I bought my kindness lottery ticket and then tossed it in the wind. I don’t know, and will never know, if my number was a winner.

Of course, you can know the effect of your kindnesses if you know the recip­ients personally. With a little luck, after all, they’ll tell you. But to some extent, in polite society and among people who care for each other, you almost expect a certain degree of kindness as a matter of course. Unkind lovers are an oxymoron, after all. That’s why doing something caring for someone to whom you have no allegiance whatsoever is more uncommon—and more rewarding, perhaps. If it works.

So in this case, on that Sunday evening in Antwerp, I took a gamble. And I don’t know if I won.

And that’s okay with me.

• • •

Image credit: The Good Samaritan by Paula Modersohn-Becker (source)

Father, son, husband, friend and writer by day; asleep by night. Happily pondering the immortality of the crab wherever words are shared.

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