It is rarely the large kindnesses or generosities that are remembered (unless, of course, your name is on a building). It is generally the small kindnesses that people cherish and often recall. Those are the ones that make the biggest difference.
Such as what happened with a homely young girl and a gorgeous beauty queen.
When I was around 12, the handsomest man I’d ever seen began attending our tiny church. He was tall, blonde, mid-20s, and as close to a movie star as anything we’d seen. He’d always come in after church started but my cousin, Lynn, and I sat on the front row of the choir and usually, we’d stop singing in order to concentrate on watching him. We’d elbow each other and smile broadly.
There was a story of some kind connected to him which, apparently, was “not for young ears” but I gleaned enough to know his life had been troubled and he was trying to straighten up. Trouble or not, I was completely dreamy-eyed about him.
A year or two after he started his church-going, something tragic happened. I don’t remember how I found out the news but I recall clearly the tremendous sadness that covered my heart and how Mama and Daddy had talked of it quietly and with such mournfulness. The trouble he had been running from chased him down. One night, when he wasn’t in full possession of his mind and body, he passed out on a railroad track and was killed by a train. All that blonde beauty gone in a moment.
Daddy presided over the funeral which was held in our little church. It wasn’t a large gathering of people, perhaps 15 or 20, mostly church folks and his family. There in the midst, though, was a stranger. She was as perfectly beautiful and blonde as he had been. Her hair was long and thick, her body curvy, her legs slender, and she was dressed in a stunning, fashionable outfit. She was a multi-titled beauty queen, the church folks said. Outside of my blonde, curvy Barbie doll with whom I spent most of my playtime as a child, I had never seen such loveliness.
The story they told was that this beauty queen had been his girlfriend. His troubles, though, had forced her away so she had long expected his premature death. She was sad but composed with a weary resignation. Mama approached her and I tagged along in order to be closer to such extraordinary beauty. I stared at her as they talked. Aware, apparently, of my unhidden fascination, she looked down and smiled.
“Is this your daughter?” she asked. Mama nodded and gave my name.
She reached out and touched the shoulder of my green, quilted homemade jumper under which I wore a matching turtleneck.
“She’s so pretty,” she said, smiling.
I was 13 years old and that was the first time anyone had ever called me “pretty.” Usually, I was called “smart” and, on occasion, “sweet” but never, under the best of circumstances, did anyone say “pretty.”
It changed my self-esteem. I was chubby, plain, and had an overbite but, from that moment forward, I stood taller and held my head higher. The most beautiful woman I had ever seen said that I was pretty.
I’m sorry that I don’t know her name. I regret that I cannot tell her that she put me on a new path that would lead me to heightened confidence which led to strong success. But this I would like for her to know: Because of her kindness, I have repaid it often. Whenever I see a young girl who is shy, chubby and plain, I lean down, touch her shoulder and say, “You’re so pretty.”
And the bright smile she gives me always repays the words.
[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “Mark My Words: A Memoir of Mama.” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.]