Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Kindness of Strangers

A couple of questions this week got me wondering if I could mash up two stories into one for this Thanksgiving week blog.  

First, somebody asked me, "Do you celebrate Thanksgiving?" My reaction was, "Duh! Of course we do!" But, before I could blurt that out, my brain filtered the question. The asker was someone who knows that The Mr and I are Canadian. I translated his inquiry to mean, "Do you mark American Thanksgiving with any kind of celebration?" I elaborated with my reply, "Well, we usually celebrate the holiday because kind friends invite us to dinner." It was my best Blanche DuBois "Streetcar" moment — "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." 

A couple of days later, a friend on Facebook shared one of those question "games" — you know the kind. This one asked: "Who is the most famous person you have ever met?" The post had 5,624,215 views! That's a lot of star power! I wasn't about to dive in to read 5 million replies, but it was fun to read a handful of comments. Celebrities ranged from John Lennon to Mahatma Ghandi to the Queen Mum. "Wow!" I thought, "Those would have been memorable  encounters," — unlike, say, meeting Mickey Mouse, which someone bragged about, a rendezvous that only requires that you buy a ticket to Disney World. 

The most famous person I ever met was Tennessee Williams. I didn't need a ticket and it was memorable.

The circumstances were these: It was the 80s. The Mr was working at a theatre company in Vancouver, BC, where Mr Williams was in residence while he worked on an adaptation of Chekov's "The Seagull." The Mr had the dubious honor of shepherding Mr Williams, who, it turns out, did rely heavily on the kindness of strangers, to put it kindly. Today, we might say that he was "needy." Constantly misplacing his glasses.

The phone at home rang one evening. I picked it up and said, "Hello?" as one does. The gentleman caller said, "Is Mr Neufeld there? This is Tennessee Williams calling." I gasped. I barely croaked out, "Hold on, please," before hurling the phone across the room to my husband. No cool whatsoever. 

During Williams' stay, a party was arranged in his honor. That phone call had gone so well! Now I was paralyzed with fear of things going even worse at my face to face meeting with this great playwright. Would it be too gushing to tell him that "The Glass Menagerie" meant more to me than any piece of literature I had ever read? That it was my favorite play of all time? That I believed in my heart that he had written it for me — that I was Laura — the awkward, self-conscious, anxious teen who had no dates during all of high school, who slept in a bedroom filled with dozens of horse figurines, and that I hid under the wing of my over-protective mom?

I mustered up my courage to speak to him. Deep breath. I shook his hand, and said, "Your plays are wonderful!" "Yes. Yes. Thank you," he said and turned toward the buffet table. No doubt he'd heard such vacuous remarks many times before. 

I was crushed and embarrassed, of course, but only at my inability to articulate my feelings. (I continue to be starstruck whenever meeting someone famous.) But I have wondered since then if Mr Williams was at all comfortable with his fame. Anyone who could write such poignant scenes for characters that struggle so with life must surely have been no egotist. Perhaps he found all that fandom tedious.

I suppose the thread between my two stories is a bit thin. In my mind, the events seemed coincidental. The "kindness of strangers" part resonated for sure. 

For most, Thanksgiving in the US is such a grand affair; bountiful, extravagant, unstinting in the feast upon the table. Family is expected to gather for the annual ritual. A four day holiday ensures that everyone pauses for a moment to express gratefulness. Given all that, the Mr and I have never felt bad that we are on the outside looking in — without family here, and as we do not feel the tug of emotional attachment that comes from childhood memories of green bean casserole and candied yams and mom's pumpkin pie, it doesn't upset us at all if we have no plans for the holiday. 

But we have come to learn that American Thanksgiving extends to outsiders. Over the years, kind friends have welcomed us to join them — even when we have been strangers to their gathered horde of assorted relatives. It's as though no one should be left out. Meals are prepared and served to homeless and disadvantaged individuals so that they may partake of the celebration. The generosity of spirit inherent in this feast day is abundant. It overflows like a cornucopia. It is America at its best.

Happy Thanksgiving to friends and strangers alike. And thank you.