A Brief Encounter

I am the president of a small community book club, and when I heard about Lorin and Jerry’s book, I invited them to speak to our group. In preparation for their visit, I called my mother, who is a writer and storyteller, knowing she would have a story for me to offer.

“Mom, you’re full of stories. You’ve been telling and writing stories all my life. Surely you have one about an Earth Angel”.:
“Let me think about this,” she replied. “Well, I’ve written seven-teen stories, but none of them are really about Earth Angels.”

After we concluded our conversation, it suddenly occurred to me that she is an Earth Angel. She was a welfare nurse for the British army during World War II, and the story of her life is the story of an Earth Angel.

I remembered a particular autobiographical piece she wrote called “A Brief Encounter.: It tells how my mother, Edith P. Reiss, took a few moments out of a hectic day to help a stranger. Here is her story…

It was 1962. I had been visiting family and friends in England for over two weeks, and the following mourning I was leaving from Hearthrow Airport on a plane to Miami. On this day, I was traveling onb an underground train in London. I looked at my watch – almost six o’clock; perhaps I would have time to stop on Oxford Street at Selfridges Department store to buy a small gif for my husband.

Climbing dowmn the stones steps that led to the street, I noticed that it was pouring outside. I put up my umbrella, but just as I got to the last step, there was heavy gush of wind and the tip of my umbrella hooked onto something. As I pulled, I noticed a tall man looking down on me from the top step. He was attempting to unhook my umbrella from the button of his overcoat. He looked at me with a stern face and two very blue eyes.

“I am so sorry,” I said and moved on down the steps.

I decided to forgo taking the bus. Because of the weather, I may have had to wait some time. I re-entered the London underground, bought another ticket, and waited for the train that would go directly to the Cumberland Hotel, where I would stay the night. Once on the train, I looked for a nonsmoking compartment.

I took a seat and a tall man sat opposite me. He was wearing a felt hat and Burberry-style overcoat, and he stared across at me with his blue eyes. Then I noticed that he was the man I had hooked with my umbrella. He stared at me and, it appeared, through me. He was deep in thought.

At the fourth station, I alighted from the train and entered the Cumberland Hotel. I was at the desk, asking the clerk if there were any messages for me, when I noticed the blue-eyed man standing to my left.

Later, at six-thirty in the evening, I decided to go too the ground floor and have dinner. There was a short line, but the cafeteria seating was somewhat full. I took my tray, and looking around, found a table for two. I proceeded to put down my dishes when I heard a voice say, “May I sit with you?” I looked up and, yes, it was the blue-eyed man.

As I ate, I noticed that he was pushing his food from one side of the plate to the other. I looked at him and commented on what a terrible day it was, with such bad weather.

He put down his knife and fork, pushed his plate away, and said, “Yes, for me it was a terrible day, perhaps the worst of my life.”

“What makes today so terrible for you?” I asked

“I feel my life is ended and I’ve nothing to life for,” he said.

“What happened?” I asked.

He sat silently, and then, looking across at me, said, “My son, our son, killed himself two weeks ago. He was only seventeen.”

Here I was. A complete stranger, and he had revealed this to me – it was like a bombshell. I instinctively knew that this man planned to take his own life and that I had to reach within myself to find the words he needed.

“My wife is blaming me for this tragedy,” he said.

He went on to tell me that eight months earlier his mother had died of cancer, and that his father had died of a heart attack three months later. Then, just tow months ago, his wife had lost her mother in an automobile accident.

Now his son, their child, was gone.

Since there were no other relatives, he and his wife were trying to cope with all these problems. And now, since his wife had put all the blame on him. He felt that he had nothing to live for.

He put his right hand on the table. I reached out and put my hand over his and gently said, “Let’s move to the lobby; it will be more comfortable.” WE found a corner area and sat down. People were smiling around, walking past us, and music was coming from another room. He looked around and motioned for us to move to another, quieter corner.

I wondered how I could possibly give comfort to this distraught man whom I did not know.

He told me he was an engineer and that his job required that he be out of town from time – to – time; his wife had been alone when their son died. I told him that he should immediately go to his wife, hold her tenderly, and tell her that he loved her, assure her and reassure her that he loved her, Both of them should go to their doctor, as neither had been eating or sleeping; he should take time off from his job; stay close to his wife; and try to get some counseling.

I asked if he or his wife were religious.

“No,” he told me.

I told him that sometimes a minster could give some comfort and strength at such a crucial time.

I asked him to try to understand that his wife had been angry about all that had happened, and that sometimes we lash out at the ones we love the most. It may have been here way of dealing with this tragedy. WE all react in different ways.

Realizing he hadn’t introduced himself, he told me that his name was Ernest. The he continued, “I never told my son that I loved him and now it’s too late.” His voice trembled.

“Perhaps whenever you visit your son’s grave, you can talk to him, talk out loud, and tell him that that you loved him. Also, tell your wife again and again that you love her. Together, you will pull through this.”

I looked at my watch. It was past nine o’clock and I had a very long journey – fourteen hours by prop plane from London to Miami. I realized that I had put a sticker on the handle of this one. We stood up and I noticed tears in his eyes. He bent down, kissed my forehead, and moved away.

That year, at Christmastime, I got many cards from England, and among them was a beautiful one with the words, “Eternally grateful.” It was signed Ernest. There was no sender’s name or address, just a postmark stamped Birmingham, England.

For the next thirty years, until five years ago, I received a lovely Christmas card, always with meaningful words, and sometimes singed Ernest or Ernie.

By Edith Reiss

Select all writings of  Edith Reiss

Select biography of  Edith Reiss


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