“The Kindnesses of Strangers,” column for March 10, 2015

My P.O. box for reader mail held a card telling me to call at the window. Never a good sign. I’d been away for a month. I expected a lot of mail. Then the clerk at the window raised his eyebrows and handed me not one, but two, very full boxes.

Long ago, I started a ritual. Each week I pick up my mail from readers. (It varies in volume depending on holidays or column topics or phases of the moon.) Then I take it to a restaurant, order lunch and spend an hour or so reading what readers have to say.

It’s fun. Usually I can read a week’s mail in one long lunch. A month’s might take longer. Maybe the rest of my life. I was going to wait to open it all later. Then I spotted in the pile a package from Susan Bartholow, a sales representative and columnist at the Times West Virginian in Fairmont, W.V.

Susan and I connected years ago when she decided (after reading a column in which I shamelessly solicited birthday cards) to send me a cake. I was out of town. It sat in the post office two weeks. The next year she sent me a “make-your-own-cake” kit. I made it. It was good. This time she sent not a cake, but a pile of birthday cards she somehow got readers to bring to the newspaper (in subzero weather) for her to send to me.

(Note: Susan also gets readers to donate teddy bears at Christmas for young patients at West Virginia University Children’s Hospital. You can send her a bear, if you like, in care of The Times West Virginian, 300 Quincy St., Fairmont, WV 26555.)

I pulled Susan’s package out of the box, went to a restaurant, ordered a big salad and started opening birthday cards.

If I live forever, I will never cease to marvel at the human capacity for kindness. Especially when it’s offered to a stranger and, most especially, when the stranger is me. People wrote the nicest things in those cards.

I wish you could read them.

One of them even quoted a birthday wish I’ve used since my children were born. Apparently, I’d mentioned it in a column: “So glad you were born.”

Suddenly I sensed I was being watched. Two tables away, a little girl with big eyes stared at me without blinking. Let’s call her Stacy. That’s not her real name, but it will do. She was sitting with her parents, I presumed, who appeared to be arguing quietly, one angry, the other weary. Nobody seemed to be having fun, least of all Stacy.

I gave her my best smile, a cross, more or less, between Julia Roberts getting an Oscar and a mule eating briars. Stacy stared back, no smile. I took it as a challenge. Rare is the kid I can’t make grin.

Just then, the restaurant staff showed up with a piece of cake and a candle to sing, “Happy birthday, dear Stacy!” She stopped staring and blew out the candle. For a while I lost her to the cake. When the cake was gone, her parents went back to whisper fighting and Stacy went back to eyeballing me.

I made faces. Crossed my eyes. Hung a spoon on my nose. You would laugh. She just stared.

So I opened the rest of the cards, savoring the good feelings they gave me. I wished I could give those feelings to Stacy.

There were birthdays when I was growing up, times when I, too, found it hard to smile. I wanted to tell her what I’ve learned: Life might not always seem happy, but it always holds a hope for happier days ahead, for birthdays to celebrate with family and friends, and chances to bask in the unexpected kindnesses of strangers.

I wanted Stacy to know that. But all I could give her was a smile. Sometimes it’s the best and the least that we can do.

As they were leaving, she and her parents passed my table.

“Happy birthday, Stacy,” I said. “So glad you were born.”

She looked back at me over her shoulder.

Then she smiled.


  1. marianne from prunedale says

    Sharon Randall, you did it again….
    I was so glad you were there to help Stacy through her difficult birthday lunch with her parents.
    Maybe your and her smiles will help see her through what might be other hard times with her family.

  2. Elvira Shoup says

    Dear Sharon,
    I was so touched by your persistence in kindness to make the little girl smile…Oh, Thank you for that! I will want to continue to help others smile from now on. I cut out your article and put it on my refrigerator. God Bless…

  3. Write from tthe heart and folks read and listen to their hearts! Gracias Sharon….

  4. Sharon,
    You made me cry, in a good way, and I don’t think it’s just the pregnancy hormones talking. (But I suppose it could be;) )

  5. Jeanne Porter says

    Hi Sharon, Been following you for years. I mean it. Years!! Live on the peninsula and followed your husband’s successes and passing. Lost my husband young, too. Anyway, my grandson is in your son’s class and while Pete and I enjoyed a McFlurry today, he told me that they had only been in the classroom about 30 minutes today due to a field trip to the Planetarium in Salinas, “And guess where we went afterwards, Grandmom?!” Two wrong guesses from Grandmom and he couldn’t contain the info any longer. “To my teacher’s house!” Ate lunch there and had cookies and brownies and met the family. What a lucky boy, to have your son as a teacher! Doesn’t hurt at all that Pete’s passion is basketball and Mr. Randall can DUNK, 360 AND lob! This Grandmom suspects that Mr Randall is a mighty fine teacher as well! Grateful Grandmom, that your son is part of my grandson’s village.

  6. Shelia Koonts says

    My Saturday morning begins with the Winston-Salem (NC) Journal and coffee, early in the morning when all is quiet. I savor the coffee, the quiet and your column. You never fail to speak to me. Sometimes it’s like you write the column to just me. You are a treasure.

  7. 🙂

  8. Way to go Sharon! I’m sure it made Stacy’s day as well as yours (and mine). Thanks for being that special someone!

  9. It is so nice of you that you made a stranger smile and so many hundreds more with beautiful columns ! Keep smiling !!

  10. Cheryl Hurst says

    Dear Sharon,
    I never fail to smile or feel moved whenever I read your column. It has been missing from my life for the past several years when my husband and I decided we could no longer afford a weekly newspaper. I was very happy to find you online today, when I read you would be near here giving one of your lovely guest speaker talks at a venue in Tell City.
    I had the honor of meeting you twice, both in Evansville, IN, about an hour from here.
    Just wanted to say hello and have a great day.

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