Recently I came across a document that is meaningful to me in several ways: the divorce document from January 1987 that finally ended my first marriage. As I held the papers in my hands, I smiled as it brought to mind something that, at first glance, seems unrelated.
I left my first husband in 1985, at the age of just 22, bringing our 4-year old son with me. I was luckier than most, as I had supportive parents who happily invited us to live with them in Phoenix while I worked to start over. But I found it difficult to embark on a new life as a single parent, and I didn’t have the money for an attorney to turn my separation into a divorce.
I got a job right away as an assistant at a small accounting firm. My job was to make copies, keep the conference room organized, and be a general helper to the three partner accountants. I learned that I could do any task set to me, and after just a few months the partners increased my task list and my salary.
One of the partners, Allen English, was a fastidious, devoted family man who came to the office early and started each day by clipping his nails at his desk — to this day the sound of nail clippers makes me think of him. He was extremely busy, as were all of the partners, but he differed from the others in that he treated the office staff like colleagues.
One day, Allen overheard a conversation I had with the office manager about my situation, that I couldn’t afford a divorce attorney and felt stuck. That afternoon he called me into his office, handed me the business card of an attorney friend of his, and told me that he’d made arrangements to foot the bill for my divorce.
I know that in this #MeToo age this smacks of something on the edge of inappropriate, but it was not. There was never an instant of innuendo or suggestion of quid pro quo. He just saw that I was a young person ready to start my life who was trapped in a bad situation. The cost was trivial for him, but this act of generosity changed my life.
All the years since then, if something brings him to mind, I think about Allen with appreciation. I won’t say he is a towering figure in my memories because we didn’t really know each other well: how much do you remember about a boss you had more than thirty years ago? But his quiet influence, professional example, and generosity will always stay with me.
Fast forward to sometime in the mid 20-teens when I was in Phoenix and I ran into an older, grayer Allen, probably in a restaurant lobby, although I don’t quite recall. I approached him and asked if he was Allen English. He was. The Allen English who had been an accountant in Phoenix? He was. I reached to shake his hand as I told him my name and that I was happy to see him again. He shook my hand and said the niceties one would expect, but it was obvious that he had no memory of me at all.
And this, takes me to my point.
This man had made such a massive impression on me, and yet he didn’t remember me at all. But then, why on earth would he? It doesn’t matter that the impression wasn’t reciprocal. What matters is that we pass our gifts and lessons on to each other and move on.
There, shaking his hand, I could have reminded him that I was the kid that he’d helped, that his single afternoon of generosity in 1986 had impacted my entire life. But he was there with other people and ready to get on with his night, not be waylaid by a stranger. And that was fine.
I don’t believe in heaven, reincarnation, or any sort of afterlife. Instead, I think that the only thing that survives when we die is whatever is remembered about us: that instant of warmth when the memory of you brings a smile to someone’s face. It is these moments of kindness that live on in others.
Allen has no idea that there’s a person is this world who remembers a moment of his generosity when he was a young man. And I have to ask myself: what have I done and what can I yet do that could make this much of an impact on someone else. What can I do that may bring a smile to someone’s face after I’m gone?