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Thankful for People We Meet

Mrs. Culp was stern. Her rare, halfway smile was a forced quick grin, as if she thought she should smile.  She spoke in a coarse whisper, which I learned from a friend was the only way she could talk.  She had lost her natural voice years earlier.  She was short and held her chin high; her hair was fixed and sprayed stiff.

            Every week when I took my young children to the Putnam County Public Library, Mrs. Culp was there.  I sometimes wondered if she’d ban us from the library for being too rowdy, too noisy.  When she took our returned books and stamped books we’d chosen to check out, she hardly looked at me and never at Son and Daughter. 

            Then thirty years later, I stood holding a metal bar and lifted my right knee which had been replaced two weeks earlier, and a short, gray-headed woman was guided to the bar directly opposite me.  She looked familiar.  How did I know her?  She struggled to do the exercise the physical therapist had explained, and after a few minutes the therapist told her to stand still and relax.

            The woman looked up at me and in a coarse whisper said, “I remember you.  You brought your children to the library every week.”  I immediately knew that the stern librarian and I were clutching the same metal bar, our fingers almost touched.  I nodded and smiled. 

            Did Mrs. Culp remember when my children hollered for me to get a book off the top shelf?  And the many times we dropped books?

            “You had a girl and a boy and they were always well behaved,” she said.  I thanked her and told her that every time before going in the library we had a use-your-best-manners talk.  “And you brought them every week.  They never ran around or were noisy.  What at they doing now?”

            Was Mrs. Culp, who hardly responded to my greeting when I piled books on the library counter, really interested in my adult children?  I explained that both Daughter and Son were married and had children and I told her about their work.

            “I’d expect they’d grow up and do well,” Mrs. Culp said.  “They were good children.”  I took a deep breath. My children had passed Mrs. Culp’s standards.

            I asked why she was doing physical therapy, and she smiled.  A real smile.  She’d fallen and broken a bone; I don’t remember if it was a hip or leg.  “I really miss the library and seeing people,” Mrs. Culp said. We talked about the feeling of calm by being surrounded by books and people who read.

            Every time I went to physical therapy I looked for Mrs. Culp, but she wasn’t there.  Those few minutes when we stood with toes and fingers almost touching stays with me. 

            Mrs. Culp was a stern librarian who did her job well and remembered my children.  Maybe, like some of us, she mellowed with age. I’m thankful I saw her genuine smile and knew her kind heart.

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