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Commentary: How words can last a lifetime

  • Story Highlights
  • Bob Greene: A woman in Michigan remembers a grocer's kindness 70 years later
  • He says people who encourage and support us have lasting impact
  • Greene: Small and sweet memories can outlast moments of bitterness
By Bob Greene
CNN Contributor
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Editor's note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose current book is "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

Bob Greene says a moment of kindness or encouragement can last a lifetime.

Bob Greene says a moment of kindness or encouragement can last a lifetime.

(CNN) -- The enduring moments of our lives, the ones that stay with us the longest, don't necessarily make the headlines.

The other afternoon I was talking with a woman by the name of Virginia Florey. She's 80 years old; she has lived in Midland, Michigan, all her life.

She was telling me that when she was 11 years old, she and her best friend, Charlotte Fenske, would walk to school together every morning. At the corner of East Carpenter Street and Haley Street, across from a Pure Oil filling station, there was a small grocery -- Thompson's grocery store, it was called.

"We would get there at around 7:30," she told me. "It must have opened up at 7 a.m., because the grocer would always be sweeping the floor when we came in.

"Charlotte and I would have a nickel, and we would buy a candy bar to split between us every morning. We would stand there in front of the man who owned the grocery and decide which kind to buy each day -- Butterfinger, or Milky Way, or Oh Henry!, or Hershey bar. We always talked about which one we wanted to spend our five cents on. We weren't very fast about it.

"And. . . ."

Here, Virginia Florey's voice grew almost wistful as she remembered it; here, almost 70 years later, you could hear the gratitude in her tone:

"He was never impatient with us. Never once."

Think of all the world-changing events that have transpired in the years since those days when the two girls in Midland would stop in at that grocery store; think of all the events that must have occurred in their own lives.

Yet back then someone was gracious toward them -- someone didn't rush them as they debated how to spend that precious nickel each Michigan morning. And now, in 2009, she sounded still thankful at the memory of it.

There's a lesson in that. In our current era, when offhanded cruelty at times seems to be the coin of the cultural realm, it may be worth giving a little thought to the idea that the small moments of people treating us with decency and empathy can last for a very long time -- that the echoes of kindness can be as loud as the echoes of callousness.

I asked her why she thought the memory of those mornings was still so vivid.

"I don't know," she said. "But I can still see him now. He would have the broom in his hand, and sometimes the dustpan in another. He would be standing by this black metal stove in the middle of his store. He was a thin man -- he wore a white butcher's-style apron, and he was so thin that he would have wrapped the apron string around his waist a few times and tied it in the front.

"And it was just so. . .calming, I think that's the word. . .for us to go in there and know that he wasn't going to rush us."

I have a feeling there are memories like that in a lot of lives -- small and sweet memories that are strong enough to override other memories of bitterness. I recall once interviewing a woman named Atsuko Saeki, who lived in Fujisawa, Japan. She told me she had attended college in the United States; she came to the U.S. knowing no one, and there were times, she said, when she had felt nervous and utterly alone.

In a physical education class, the students played volleyball. "I was very short, compared to the other students," she told me. "I felt I wasn't doing a very good job. To be very honest, I was a lousy player."

One day, she said, when she was playing especially poorly, trying without success to set the ball up for other players, a young man on her team, sensing her discomfort, walked up to her. He whispered to her, so no one else could hear:

"You can do that."

Something so simple. But, years later, she told me:

"I have never forgotten the words. 'You can do that.' When things are not going so well, I think of those words.

"If you are the kind of person who has always been encouraged by your family or your friends or somebody else, maybe you will never understand how happy those words made me feel. Four words: 'You can do that.'"

This weekend, in the central Ohio town where I grew up, there will be a charity race through the streets in honor of Jack Roth, who was my best friend since we were 5 years old.

Jack died of cancer in 2004. We hold the race in his name each year at this time. He may have been the kindest person I have ever known. It was his defining quality; whenever he would see a little kid in a driveway trying mightily to shoot baskets, Jack would instinctively call out: "Nice shot!" Whenever he would see a child struggling to throw a baseball, he would say: "Good arm!" Seemingly small moments -- I must have seen him do it a thousand times during our lives. And every time, he made someone feel a little better.

There will be hundreds of people running in that race this weekend, and if Jack were there, I know exactly what he would be doing: standing near the finish line, applauding for the racers who are the slowest, the ones who come in near the back of the pack. Cheering them on. Telling them that they've done a good job.

"He was never impatient with us," Virginia Florey, remembering the grocer at the corner of Carpenter and Haley, said, the timbre of thankfulness in her voice. "Never once."

Seventy years later, she sounded as if the memory of such a thing still matters.

Which, of course, is why it does.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

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