Delicate blue flowers caught my eye in the flower bed. I wondered where they had come from as they were nothing that we had planted … they had just grown. It only took a moment to realise that they were flax flowers and that, in fact, we were responsible for their presence after all, albeit inadvertently. They had appeared around the base of the bird feeder, where the constant stream of overwintering avian diners must have scattered stray seeds. The seeds had lain there quietly, and now, with the advent of summer, were filling all the barren spaces in the flower bed. Feeding the birds through the winter was paying an unexpected dividend.
The beauty of the flowers reminded me of something my son had said earlier that morning. He had been over the moon to get a message from a friend he had met on his travels… someone for whom he had done something both random and nice. That gesture to a stranger had been the starting point of a friendship that has continued to this day.
We were talking too about what it is that makes us remember people, long after they have passed through our lives. We encounter so many other human beings over the years, and most of them fade into the mists fairly quickly. We remember the ones who were our friends, we may remember the bullies, or the students who excelled, but most of the names and faces will never resurface in memory unless something sparks recall. We do not remember the bus driver, the shop assistant, the passing acquaintance. Give it enough time and we probably won’t even really remember most of the children with whom we went to school… faces we saw every day.
It is much easier to recall the people who stood out for us for some reason, good or bad. The ones who elicited some strong emotion or with whom we made a personal connection. The ones who impressed us or touched our hearts. But of the strangers whose lives touch ours but briefly, we remember the ones who did something different from what we were accustomed to.
They do not have to be magnificent gestures. I remember an artist called Charlie who I met in Paris for the smile that lit up a room. Mr Marsh, the old gentleman who ran the pet shop on Town Street over half a century ago, who always had time for the children in his shop. Small details in any life, people of no other importance in my life than that they stood out for me…one for his infectious joy and one for having time to talk to small people.
Acts of kindness always make a person stand out in memory. I will never forget the gentleman who reassured me on my first day back at work after a drunk driver had rearranged my face and shattered my confidence, though I have not seen him for well over forty years. I will not forget the three Irish girls I met on the Calais to Dover ferry one Christmas Eve, who rescued me when the Bureau de Change was closed and I needed English money for my train ticket. That too is four decades ago. Or the face of the vagrant who made Christmas special one year, even further back in memory.
As my son and I talked about what had made people stand out for us, it became clear that it is the ones who we find unusual in some way that really make an impression. The ones who are kind, the ones who always smile, the person who really has time for others or the empathy to respond to unspoken need… they are the ones, of all the thousands of passing acquaintances, who make their mark.
Like the flax flowers, whose beauty is an unexpected gift from having fed the birds through the winter, seeds are sown without thought or intent by people whose lives touch our own for a moment and who light up that moment by stepping outside of normality. The memory stays with us… and, sometimes, even the memory of beauty is enough to fill the barren spaces of our lives.