An Unexpected Gift

I had about 45 minutes to kill between meetings and found myself at one of my favorite stores. You know – that fashionista, get-it-all-here place where you can score your bargain of the day. It was lunchtime and crowded, so the checkout line stretched well beyond the last-chance impulse purchase aisle just before the registers. Along with other shoppers, I was trying to establish my place. As I scanned those around me, I spotted an Air Force ball cap and the pleasant seventy-something face below it. He looked slightly lost and bemused, just as my Air Force veteran dad had in his last years. I found myself drawn to him.  “Were you in the Air Force?” I asked. He nodded. I thanked him for his service and said, “I served in the Air Force, in Strategic Air Command.” He grabbed my hand and said, “God bless you.” His wife was right there, and we exchanged pleasantries, comparing our military lives. He had been in EEE (Electrical, Electronics, and Electromechanical). We both came from military families. Just as she had, I had married an Air Force guy.

As the line moved, I was aware he was right behind me. At some point, I turned back and said something to him. He smiled. His wife mouthed the words, “He has Alzheimer’s.” “I know,” I said. I was well familiar with the symptoms. I turned and looked directly at him, our eyes meeting. “You remind me of my father.” (He had been an electrical engineer.) The man reached for my hand and held it warmly. “You remind me of someone beautiful.” The same soft smile I had first noticed never left his face. Again, he said, “God bless you.” I could feel the tears start to form. Fortunately, it was my turn to check out, and I hurried to my register, but I still can’t shake the memory and rare gift of our few moments together. I’m not sure I want to.

All that Glitters…

Last week, an old (and precious) friend treated me to an incredible trip to Las Vegas to celebrate a milestone birthday. Why Las Vegas? I’m not really sure — it was more impulse than anything added to a curious fascination with slot machines that dates back to 1988 when our young family was in the Vegas airport for half an hour between planes.  Lulled by those shiny spinning sirens, I abandoned my husband with an infant in a dirty diaper so I could make an offering of my spare change. I don’t think he’s ever forgiven me.

Even the airport has changed dramatically since that time — its sprawling concourses lined with an incredible array of enticements to lose your money, the new strip so full of opulence and attractions, it was hard to know where to look first. Where else can you see the Statue of Liberty silhouetted against the Eiffel Tower ringed by a roller coaster? Laura and I set out to explore these monuments to entertainment and excess, and I couldn’t help but try to capture the cacaphonic sights  with my camera. Laura, in contrast, insisted on taking  pictures of us telling me how she focuses on people when she travels rather than the scenery.

It wasn’t until I was traveling home that it hit me. Laura was right. I had focused on the glitter and missed what had really stood out to me — the people. We made connections almost everywhere starting that first morning with the transplanted artist and part-time tour guide from Portland, Maine who had been lulled by Las Vegas’ 24-hour wake cycle. He offered us a quick and helpful orientation, and I could hear his affection for his adopted city as he spoke to us. Looking for inexpensive jewelry in a store that was being ousted for something more upscale, I found the owner was from Jordan, and we talked about the turmoil in that area and the heartache that comes with having to leave a homeland you love. In Tiffany’s we met Peter, a passionate young man from Puerto Rico, and we learned more about the lack of opportunity and financial woes of this beleaguered U.S. territory.  We gained fascinating insight on art and the creative process with Susan in the Chihuly Store at the Bellagio. She had known Dale Chihuly for over twenty years, and her excitement in showing us the remarkable translation of his initial sketches to stunning three-dimensional  artworks was truly inspiring. We connected with Miyuki on our spa day at the Mandarin Oriental and she shared the sweet story of how she met her American husband in Japan while working at a theme park (he was a Viking). Then there was the amazing Vearn (his real name), a tour guide atop Paris’ Eiffel Tower. A celebrity in his own right, autistic,  and graced with an amazing photographic memory, he knew everything about the city (including the fact that we were in Paradise and not Las Vegas), down to detailed statistics and the notorious history of each and every hotel. His personal story, both heartbreaking and uplifting, compelled me to have our picture taken together.


Laura, me, and Vearn

On the way home, I sat next to Isolde, a remarkably beautiful educator who was contemplating her next chapter. Her heart for encouraging youth to embrace self-worth and find their own path was inspiring and compelling.

Next time I go somewhere, I will look for the human stories beneath the landscape. These are the memories I want to capture.  There will be more photos of faces, and less of glitter.

Oh, by the way, I did scratch my itch to play the slots. Although I was up by twenty cents, I got greedy and lost it. That’s Vegas;-)