August 25, 2009

The Friendship Pin

Not too long ago, I cleaned out my jewelry box. Tucked in amongst my pins, I found an almost forgotten gift from an almost forgotten friend.

Years ago, when I was working at the grocery store, one of our baggers was a retired gentleman we called Rudy. He was from Switzerland and had spent his working life as a janitor at a local high school. When age forced his retirement, he came to our store to pack bags. Rudy was a character. His English was barely intelligible. His accent thick German. We could understand "Ya Ya" and "Okey Dokey" from Rudy. Everything else was gibberish.

His wife was a little bird of a woman and she would ride the bus to meet him at the end of his shift. She would shop for groceries and then check out while he packed them, punched the time clock, and they caught the bus home. Rudy and Mrs. Rudy, as we called her, were the sweetest lovebirds. I would struggle to understand them every time they came in the store because I was sure their story was interesting. The only details I ever learned was that they immigrated from Switzerland and had no children. The two of them came to this country alone and lived a modest life with their love binding them together.

Once, Mrs. Rudy couldn't come to meet Rudy at the store and called me to give him the message. Her and Rudy became my friends. I gave Rudy a ride home from work, and they lived in a tidy little house walking distance from the school where he had worked. I often wondered why their English never improved, but how much opportunity does a janitor get to socialize with people? They were their own little circle of love, so as long as they understood each other, I suppose it never mattered if anyone else did.

I remember one day, one of the people working at our store for the day spoke German, and Rudy's face lit up as he engaged in animated conversation with her. He really enjoyed speaking his native tongue and finally sharing his stories. The temp was the person who told me he and Mrs. Rudy had no children and were from Switzerland. When Mrs. Rudy would come in the store, she would always come to the office and visit with me. Most of the conversation was smiles and nods, as I wonder how much of what I said she understood, as I only understood about 50% of what she said.

After some time, Rudy began to call off sick from work. His health was failing. Nobody ever knew how old Rudy was, but he was much older than we ever imagined. Rudy finally quit one day, though he and Mrs. Rudy would still take the bus to our store to shop. They always would stop and visit for a few minutes. After a while, we didn't even see them shopping. I called their house once to check in, but then I felt like I was being invasive. One day, I answered the phone at the store to Mrs. Rudy's hysteria. Rudy had died.

I wish I could say I had gone to the funeral but all I did was gather money and arrange to have flowers sent. It didn't seem like it was that important at the time. About a month after Rudy died, Mrs. Rudy came in the store to shop. She came looking for me. I came out of my office and asked her to join me for a cup of coffee. As we sat sipping our coffee on a bench, she reached into her pocketbook. Wrapped in about 3 layers of tissues, she handed me something. She told me that Rudy gave her this when they were first married and I was always so nice the both of them that she wanted me to have it.

As I gingerly unwrapped the tissues, inside was a lovely gold and green floral pin. I insisted that I couldn't accept her gift, and she insisted that I must. She went on how I was the one of the only people who ever tried to understand her funny English. I took the pin and pinned it to my blouse that instant, and said, I would be proud to have such a lovely gift from such a dear friend. My eyes welled up with tears as my young smooth hand clutched Mrs. Rudy's wrinkled spotted hand.

I learned that the easiest language to understand is a genuine smile and honest concern. That overcomes any accent or barrier. When I found the pin from my friend, the story came rushing back. The pin that allowed me for the first and last time to understand Mrs. Rudy perfectly.

I wish I knew what happened to Mrs. Rudy. I never saw her much after that. I would like to say I did so much more for her, but I didn't. However, she taught me the importance of listening to everyone. You never know the stories they have to tell. You never know the opportunity that may be facing you. I may have missed some, but at least I caught some others


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