February 05, 2015

Cleland Corner - Pam Cleland


Be Joyful

“We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.” – Mother Theresa

I have never had an encounter or a conversation with a homeless person. I rarely have acknowledged a homeless person in passing on the street. Like many people, I move about my life, self-absorbed in my own world.

That fact changed during Thanksgiving weekend when I was in New York City visiting my son who recently moved there.

As my visit drew to an end, I insisted on helping my son with “something.” After much encouragement, I talked him into letting me do all his laundry.

I arrived at the laundromat before he did.  I selected a seat and sipped my Starbucks Pumpkin Latte, waiting for my son and his laundry to arrive. The door began revolving as professional-looking people came in, dropped their laundry to have it cleaned, and then left to commence their work day.

I suddenly noticed a slight woman, 60ish, outside with a large grocery cart loaded with her belongings – clothing, bedding, empty food containers, shoes – everything you can imagine and then some. She opened the door ever so slightly and asked me to hold it so she could get her cart inside. The laundromat owner quickly came to her aid and mine.

“Lisa” was having a conversation with herself, but actually sounded quite coherent. She shared with me that she was there to wash her bedding…a pillow and comforter. Lisa collected her coins, talking to herself about her life.  At this point, I was overwhelmed with emotion, watching this dirty, seemingly lonely woman wash the one load that was most important to her.

I went to the owner and asked him what he thought about me offering $20 to Lisa. Would she accept? Would she be offended? The owner said that Lisa frequents the laundromat regularly and can pay, but that she lives down the block in a shelter and this is a “day out” for her.

I approached Lisa and extended my hand with the $20. I told her I’d like to treat her today and to “please accept this as my gift to you.” Lisa, with her long, stringy, sparse gray hair in her face, began to cry. Ever so thankful, she replied, “It is too much money for one load of wash.”  I encouraged her to use the balance any way she’d like. She accepted with gratitude I have never seen before. I felt like I had given her a million dollars.

My son arrived with his laundry about this time, looked at me, looked at Lisa and caught on to what just transpired. My annoying feeling of “why are you so late,” quickly dissipated as I hugged him in tears. How unimportant his lateness was at that moment.

As we loaded our wash, Lisa began to talk. She told me that she was Russian, had children, including an adult daughter who died. Her brother who lives in New York City, “owns a hospital and is very rich” but his wife didn’t support him providing for Lisa, so he cut Lisa out of his life. The only family Lisa reported to see was  her grandson, “He takes me out to eat.” As she shared her life, she plowed through the clean, left-behind clothing at the back of the laundromat, looking for clothes to wear herself. She told me she sang with the opera at one time and said, “I have a very nice voice.” As if she needed to prove it, she started singing. Everyone was awed and listened intently. She was right. She had a beautiful voice.

I really don’t know if Lisa is a good historian or not; if her sharing was at all truthful. But it didn’t matter. This was a woman with feelings, a woman who lived a life probably much differently than before she became homeless.  We had absolutely nothing in common, but I found my heart breaking for her. I realized what she needed was someone who didn’t ignore her.

Lisa did not ask me anything about myself. I wasn’t expecting that and quite frankly, enjoyed giving her the time to talk to someone who listened and asked questions about her life.

We were in the laundromat three hours. I called my son to tell him I and his laundry were ready. As I was leaving, Lisa stopped me and asked, “Will I see you again?” I looked at her with a smile and said, “Probably not, as I live in Denver.”  With a broad grin, Lisa replied, “Oh yes, I have a friend in Boulder that I am planning to go visit, maybe I’ll see you then.”

Many blessings to you, your family, your friends and those in need,

Pam Cleland

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