Fade to Gray: The Stones
It was a weekly ritual Alice thought no one even noticed – Wednesday morning Mass at her local church and then a cup of tea at the diner across the street. She liked it there because it was never crowded and her favorite corner booth was often empty. The bill was always the same, too – $1.30 – to which she’d leave an even three bucks, more than covering the tip. And there was something else she did, not always, but often enough that a young waitress noticed.
Today, just a few days before Christmas, the pretty girl with the tray and apron worked up the courage to ask, “Ma’am, I don’t mean to intrude, but you’ve been coming here for almost a year now and I just have to, I mean ... well, I’m wondering about the stones.”
Sometimes when she thought no one was looking, Alice would reach into her pockets and take out several small, smooth stones; most no bigger than a silver dollar. One was white as a snowflake, two black, another grey and the last one the color of rust. Five stones that she’d rub in her hands as she looked out the window at the busy world and then line up in front of her as she sipped the lemon tea. The waitress wondered if this sweet woman who sat alone might be half mad, but was relieved when she smiled warmly and offered her a seat and a story she’d not soon forget.
“My life is wonderful now, blessed you might say,” Alice told the waitress. “But it wasn’t always this way. The road here has been hard and each of these stones represents those rough patches. This first black stone is from the spring of 1980, when my husband Ben lost his job. It was hard not having his income, but for the first time Ben spent real, quality time with our two children. For four months, he cooked, cleaned, sat with them to do homework; things he didn’t have time for before. It changed him in a good way. He, of course, got another job, but he always made time for us after that and this stone reminds me of what a blessing losing his job was.
“This other black stone is for me, and a health scare I had a few years ago. I, too, had lost sight of my priorities. But hearing from a doctor that you might not be here in a year has a way of shaking you awake to what matters. I’ll never forget that.”
“This grey stone is from before you were born. On Oct. 4, 1987, a freak snowstorm knocked out power for 11 days and forced us to pull together in ways we never did before. Without TV we played Scrabble by candlelight most nights and talked for hours. Believe me, we were happy to get the lights back on, but I’ll treasure that time as a family always.”
“The white stone is for my granddaughter born last year, seven weeks premature. It was touch and go for a while, but those nurses and doctors never left her side and she’s happy and healthy; my perfect little angel now. “
She reached for the waitress’s hand.” And this last stone is from a neighbor of mine. That year I was dealing with health problems, we’d fallen behind on the yard work and, without anyone asking, the man across the street showed up with his teenage son and raked our yard. Somewhere under the leaves they found this stone and he left it in the mailbox for me. I thought it looked like a heart, so I kept it to remind me of his friendship.” She looked into the waitresses eyes, squeezed her hand and finished. “Hard times can be the best times. These stones remind me of that. They keep me on the path”.
A bell rang and the waitress excused herself to go to grab someone’s order. When she returned to the corner booth to thank the old woman for sharing her story she was gone. Just an empty tea cup, three dollar bills folded in half and small rust-colored stone holding the money in place. She put it in her pocket and smiled. It was the nicest gift she’d ever received.
As we celebrate this season of giving, each year I share this tiny fable as my gift and urge you to reach into your own life and close your fingers tightly around those precious stones and memories that sustain and heal.
It’s been a tough year for many — lost family, jobs, homes. Just remember storms pass, ice thaws and, in the end, love wins. The man whose birthday we celebrate on Wednesday is a testament to that. Merry Christmas.