My American Life — Stories of Kindness

Sharing stories of kindness during a time of distress

Lots of colorful umbrellas
Lots of colorful umbrellas
Photo by Helen Cheng on Unsplash

Driving in the winter was hard, not because of snow or ice, but because the days were short. Quite often, I would turn the car lights on while driving through the morning mist. The student parking garage, located a few blocks from the school was a tall building with at least a hundred cars parked on each floor. I would keep winding upwards, usually finding a spot on the seventh or eighth floor.

Most evenings, it would be dark when I walked back to the garage and found my way to the car, trying to remember which floor it was parked. Turning the ignition on, I would begin thinking about what to make for dinner. National Public Radio kept me company on the drive home.

One evening, I unlocked the car and tried to turn the ignition on. Nothing. No crank. No sound. I returned back to school concerned about the car. All I knew was how to drive and how to fill the fuel tank.

“It’s probably the battery. Did you leave your lights on?” asked Sue, a student in the department who was working late. She walked back with me to the garage. Sue was right. I had forgotten to turn the headlights off that morning and the battery had drained. Luckily, she had jumper cables in her car and knew the procedure to jump start my car. It responded and I drove back that evening, relieved to have escaped so closely.

My habit of leaving the headlights on was not an easy one to break. I kept repeating the mistake many times over the course of my student life. I kept jumper cables in the trunk of my car. I learnt how to use them.

But on every cold winter evening when I needed a jump start, I had to gather my courage to approach an unsuspecting person, usually someone who had the misfortune of parking next to me, to ask for a favor.

“Hi. My car battery is dead, I need a jump start. Can you please help me?”

I must have made this request at least half a dozen times to complete strangers. I’m sure they were tired and wanted nothing more than to drive off to their warm homes. But every single time, they obliged, young and old, men and women, those knowledgeable about cars and those who were hearing such a request for the first time.

For them it was an inconvenience, to me it was a big favor.

Both the asking and receiving were part of a transaction that transcended our differences. It was just a small act in the grand scheme of things.

And I am grateful.

Little girl with pink umbrella
Little girl with pink umbrella
Photo credit Stephanie Blanchard

Take a look at this picture, taken last week. My colleague’s four-year-old daughter on a rainy day in Singapore. She hides behind a pretty pink (her favorite color) umbrella with a smooth wooden handle that is shaped like a duck’s head with a pink beak. The umbrella used to belong to my soon-to-be-graduating daughter who occasionally babysits this little girl.

Like George The Second, our well-ravelled beanie monkey (post #5), this pink umbrella is also more than twenty-years old. It has survived two journeys on high seas packed alongside other belongings that travelled from US to India and then to Singapore.

Before the pink duck umbrella, there was a red one, a hand-me-down from a former colleague in Palo Alto.

My years at my first job in California were very different from my years as a student in Baltimore. With no clear demarcation between students and teachers, colleagues fell on a wide spectrum of experience ranging from newbies like me, research scientists, middle managers and senior management. Our department of seventy or so was also very diverse in terms of age, education, place of origin, food preferences and interests.

Over Noah’s bagels and Krispy Kreme donuts for informal team meetings, and dimsum or pizza lunches, I enjoyed conversations with colleagues, some of whom had previously been construction workers, or pilots of small aircrafts, and many who still indulged in their passion for surfing or horses.

One rainy December evening, a colleague Kay, whipped out a little red umbrella with a duck handle for the short walk across the parking lot to where her truck was parked.

“That’s so cute,” I couldn’t help exclaiming.
“Isn’t it? It belonged to my daughter Suzie when she was little, I keep it on my desk as a spare one now,” Kay replied.
“Where can I get one? I’m sure my daughter will like it.”
“At CVS pharmacy. I think I saw a few there last week. Looks like it is still popular.”

I went looking for it but the two stores close to work and home didn’t have any. When I disclosed this to Kay, she insisted on giving me her red one, saying that it was old and used, Suzie had outgrown it and she had many other umbrellas.

“Little girls should have cute umbrellas,” she added.

A few weeks before leaving the US, I was able to find the pink duck umbrella at a store and bought one. Over the years, the red one broke. Although my girls were older and not so enamoured by it, the pink one came with us to Singapore because I could not bear to discard it callously.

Six years later, as I passed it on to another little girl who was born here but whose mother hails from a country far away, I thanked Kay for initiating this cycle two decades ago.

I wholeheartedly agree that little girls should have cute umbrellas. Don’t you?

Originally published at https://www.ranjanirao.com on June 12, 2020.

Written by

I write insightful personal stories about my scientist, immigrant, travel life. 4 books http://bit.ly/RanjaniRao. Share memoir journey -www.ranjanirao.com

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