My grandmother Frances was funny and frugal and friendly. She once flew out to see my cousin in Montana, and on the plane, she struck up a conversation with a couple with whom she exchanged Christmas cards for the next 25 years. Back in the day when long distance calls were expensive, she and her plane friend wrote each other letters every couple of weeks.
We laughed about it and teased Nanny a little. In hindsight, both of them were probably anxious about flying, both wearing sensible shoes, both had husbands who were more fascinated with the workings of the plane, and were looking for a way to pass the time. The friendship made perfect sense.
Following in Nanny’s footsteps, my mom doesn’t know many strangers either. When she and Dad attended Mizzou football games, they had really great seats, and Mom is a true Tigers fan. But as much as she enjoyed the games, she like people watching and catching up with the complete strangers who became friends just based on proximity seating.
When we went to the games, we sometimes got to sit in seats near them, because “Joann and Tom’s daughter and her boyfriend are traveling on game day.” I am embarrassed to admit we once were the beneficiary of “funeral seats” from some other of Mom’s friends. Don’t ask.
There are some benefits to not knowing a stranger, primarily that other extroverts get to connect with even more people and expand their likely already large group of friends.
So an extrovert like me had no trouble keeping the generational gift going. I am likely to strike up a conversation with someone new without prompting. Unfamiliar face in the row in front of me at church? I am grinning and greeting.
Parent of a rival band marcher sitting close to me in the bleachers at a competition? I am congratulating them on their band’s performance and asking them if they had any good meals while they were in town.
Two new sets of friends came from this kind outreach, and what we fondly refer to around my house as ‘making nice.’ I don’t have to force myself to ‘make nice’, as it is buried deep in my genes. I wish I had inherited the ability to cook like my Nanny and Mom, but I will settle for this gift. That is I would have settled for this gift, until recently.
We took a spring break excursion to watch my beloved St. Louis Cardinals at spring training. I avoided the temptation to make friends with anyone in the airport, having read enough scary reports about smugglers that I was busy keeping my luggage near me so I could answer honestly that I had it with me at all times when they asked at check-in.
We ate at a cool restaurant with really close seating, and I hardly made eye-contact with anything except my chicken. In fairness, I do appreciate a good chicken dish, and traveling makes me hungry.
Checking into the hotel, we encountered a frazzled clerk who really was doing her best, and I resisted the urge to comfort her and tell her that her mom would be proud of how she was handling her job. I had to put my hands in my pockets not to reach out and pat her.
So when we finally got to practice one day at training camp, my ‘make nice’ had been bottled up for days. We all spread out to different fields and stalked our favorite players. Don’t panic. I didn’t try to build a lasting friendship with a professional baseball player. It’s worse.
On the first set of bleachers, there was a male version of me. He inquired where I was from and before long, we were deep in conversation.
I found out he had married someone who was not a Cardinal fan, they had stayed together for the kids, finally divorced, and on this trip, he had with him two of his children (one of whom is studying sports medicine in college and really having a hard time), his aging parents, and his new fiancé, one who is as devoted to the Cardinals as he is.
He was happy to learn about my family, too, and he gave me one of his business cards in case I ever have a need to buy a washer and dryer when I am in southern Arkansas. I bid him a reluctant goodbye. Sure would like to have heard more about Angie’s collegiate struggles.
As I walked to the next field, I was behind an adorable couple with one toddler who didn’t want to stay in her stroller. I couldn’t see a way past them, so I just walked behind them, enjoying the pretty little family. When we stopped to enter the next area, I noticed the mom was very, very pregnant. We exchanged smiles.
While the dad was wrestling a diaper from their bag, my ‘make nice’ bubble burst, and I leaned forward and started a conversation with what I thought was a sparkling opener.
“My niece and nephew were stairsteps apart like yours will be. All my sister could think about was getting the first out of diapers before the baby was born,” I offered.
They both smiled and murmured something I couldn’t quite hear. Assuming they had not understood me, I offered a little clarification.
“You know, so she wouldn’t have two in diapers at the same time.” They both just sort of smiled and nodded, and then they stepped aside to let me pass while they changed the toddler.
When I was almost out of range, the dad said, “Wow. Thanks for the advice, Martha.”
The not so ‘make nice’ part of me turned around and said, “Actually, my name is Cathy,” to which the dad said, “Oh, sorry, I didn’t know you could hear me,” and looked at least a little embarrassed.
But it was me who was embarrassed that my intrusiveness had not been well-received. And also sad that I hadn’t gotten to know them well enough to exchange Christmas card addresses. I could send one to the car dealer in Arkansas and see where it goes, I suppose. I wish I could remember the fiancé’s name, but maybe I can ask how Angie’s studies are going or if she solved her roommate problem or got to liking dorm food any better.
I have given a lot of thought to the exchange with the expectant parent, and to my intent as opposed to the young couple’s reception. I am going to just keep smiling from now on to see where it goes, before I issue my opening salvo or deeply engage.
If I see you at the post office, and I am grinning maniacally, please speak first if you are so inclined. I don’t want to get caught ‘making nice’, or as my family is now calling it, “Making Martha.”