I would gladly skip the Sign of Peace if I could, so I was less than thrilled about the talkative young woman in line with me at the Post Office. But what started as my nightmare awkward moment turned into something else—a lesson in why God wants us to reach out to others, at Mass and beyond.
by Becky Arganbright
If there is one part of the Mass I would gladly forego, it is the Sign of Peace. While I understand that this is an opportunity to wish each other peace–and more importantly, as a chance to make peace with those we may have had conflict with before making the act of receiving Holy Communion–I admit that I hold back from extending myself to others. I am shy, reserved, socially awkward, you name it. Whatever label you want to slap on me, I’ll take it.
I will shake hands with those who offer their hands to me. I will smile and nod to anyone (a safe gesture). But I cannot make myself turn around and make the first move. I just wait for this period of awkwardness to be over with.
But then one day, I found myself thrown into an uncomfortable situation whether I wanted to be or not.
“I like your boots.”
I was standing in line at the post office. I was the third person in line and trying to be patient as the lady at the counter tried to make up her mind what kind of stamps she would like when I felt more than heard, the door open and a cold blast of air push in. Then, a voice piped up, breaking the stoic silence.
“I like your boots.” The voice said.
I turned to the girl behind me and gave her a quick smile. “Thanks,” I said politely and turned back to face the front of the line.
“Probably because they are a lot like mine.” The girl went on. I turned around again to look at her boots and then back at mine. Yes, they were very similar. They even had the same salt-water stain on them. I looked at her again and nodded my agreement. Then, after feeling I had given her observation enough proper assessment, I turned around again.
A few seconds of silence. Then, “Have you made any good New Year’s resolution this year?”
Before I even had a chance to answer, she laughed and said, “Sorry if I’m talking too much. I always talk to people but they usually just give me the Stink Eye.”
Well, after a comment like that, I could hardly turn my back on her, though I wanted to with every fiber of my being. The man ahead of me grunted a few sympathy grunts, as though he understood my pain. The lady at the counter finally purchased her stamps and left and we all moved up in line. Two more people to go, and I still had to think of something to say lest I be accused of giving the talkative girl the Stink Eye.
I decided to turn the tables on her by asking, “Did you make any New Year’s resolutions?”
Her face got serious. “Yes,” she said. “I plan to clean up my life and get my baby girl back home with me.”
A fellow neighbor in need
If I had thought the room was quiet before, it got even quieter now. I could sense that even the grunting man ahead of me was listening. But the girl either didn’t notice or perhaps she didn’t care.
“I’m going back to school,” she said. “Right now, I’m just taking general courses until I can figure out what I want to do. But at least I’m doing something.”
She further explained how she had gotten herself “messed up” into the “party life” of drugs and alcohol. She became pregnant and found that she couldn’t take care of her daughter, so she gave her up to her parents for the time being. “Right now, I bring her home with me on the weekends, just to help get things started. I’m still not in a place where I can have her full time again, but that’s why I need a job, which is why I’m going back to school. So my resolution this year is to have her back with me by the end of the year.”
By this time, we had moved up in line again, and we had everyone’s full attention. Even the postal worker was listening. “I want to give my daughter a house, you know?” the girl said. “I want to give her a house—not a tiny apartment—with a big backyard. That’s all I need. Just give me a simple house with a big backyard where she can run and play and I’ll be happy.”
I looked at this young woman, who looked no older than twenty. Even at her young age, she looked like she had lived a hard life. She reeked of cigarette smoke; her teeth were stained yellow. Her hair had streaks of dye and she had facial piercings. In all honesty, her appearance was one of the reasons why I didn’t want to talk to her. I had badly misjudged her.
But now as she stood before me, I saw a young woman who was desperately lonely. So desperate, she would talk to a stranger in line at the post office! I also realized, with a pang of my conscience, that she was a rare find. Here was a mother who could admit she messed things up and wanted to make it right for her daughter. I also realized that I was looking at someone with a lot of ambition and drive.
“Wow! That’s amazing,” I told her. “Good for you for making such a huge turn-around. Really, that’s awesome.”
“Thanks! Boy, this is the longest anyone has talked to me. By this time, they’ve usually left the room!” she joked. She stuck out her hand. “My name’s Jenny.”
“Becky,” I answered, shaking her hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”
It was now my turn to mail my packages, but the clerk understood as I set my packages on the counter and gave Jenny my full attention. We had been talking about job possibilities, and even the clerk had some suggestions for Jenny.
“You know, I hardly know you, but I could see you working as a nursing assistant,” I told her. “I used to work as a nursing assistant, and one of the things is that you need to have a love for people. You seem like a real ‘people person’ to me, and nursing homes are always looking for help. The programs aren’t that long and you can work as soon as you’re certified.”
Jenny was immediately interested. “Can you tell me more about it? I’ve always heard of nursing assistants but I thought it would take years to do.”
From there, we talked about how to become certified and where to find work. Jenny was thrilled when she realized that there was a nursing home just down from where she lived that was working on an expansion for an Alzheimer’s unit and would be looking for help soon. By the time I was ready to leave, she had a plan to look into nursing assisting as her new goal for school.
As I turned to leave, she called after me, “Hey—thanks for talking to me. That doesn’t happen very often.”
“Thanks for talking to me,” I returned. “It was really nice meeting you.”