Long ago, a handsome soldier showered her with kindness. Now it was her turn to pay it forward.
I loved the diner near my house for its hash browns, but I also loved the staff. Or really, one staff member in particular. Mia was just 15, but she bused tables to help her mother make ends meet at home. “The usual today?” she said as I slid into a booth. I nodded.
“Table three needs coffee!” one of the waitresses snapped. Mia hurried to get the pot.
I felt a stab of recognition. I was a lot like Mia at her age. I knew she wasn’t considered pretty or popular at school. Sometimes she was the target of bullies. At the diner she was also the low girl on the totem pole, and the staff sometimes took their frustrations out on her.
She looks so weary, Lord, and she’s only fifteen, I thought as I watched her hand out menus to a party of six. I wish I could do something for her.
“Mia!” one of the waiters shouted. “We’ve got customers waiting to be seated. Get that table in the corner ready!” Mia wiped her hands on her plain brown uniform and rushed over to the spread of dirty plates and crumpled napkins.
On my way home from the diner I thought about myself at 15 in 1969. I’d felt as insignificant as Mia did. I wasn’t popular or pretty. At the time when I felt most self-conscious I’d developed a benign but disfiguring tumor on the side of my head.
“I’m afraid we’ll have to let it keep growing for a while,” my doctor had explained. “It will be easier to remove surgically once it’s a bit larger.”
I went home from that appointment and played with hairstyles and makeup, but nothing hid the swelling. I felt like the most unattractive girl on the face of the planet. Mom decided a trip to visit relatives might cheer me up.
But on the train ride to Richmond I was mortified when a handsome young Army soldier in dress uniform chose the seat right next to me.
“I just finished serving two tours in Vietnam,” he said, throwing his duffle onto the overhead rack. “Now I’m headed over to Germany.”
“You must be excited,” I said, trying to keep from turning my head too much so he wouldn’t notice my disfigurement. “I read a book about Germany and the forests are supposed to be gorgeous.”
The soldier smiled. “So you’re a reader,” he said. We had that in common and talked books for an hour straight. The soldier was so friendly that little by little I relaxed. I forgot all about my tumor, if just for a while. Eventually I even felt comfortable enough to bring it up.
“I can’t wait for the surgery to be over,” I confessed near the end of our 10-hour journey. “Hopefully just a few more months.”
“I’d like to send you a get-well card or something from Germany,” he said. I gave him my address. When we parted at the Richmond train station I figured he would forget all about me.
But back home a few weeks later I got a package covered in foreign postage. Inside was a small, black velvet box. I opened it and lifted out a delicate silver filigree bracelet with opal, pearl and turquoise charms. I’d never gotten any gift so pretty—especially not from a handsome soldier.
I wore the bracelet every day. I sat in class and fingered the tiny charms, marveling that someone I barely knew thought I was worthy of such a prize.
I was devastated when I lost the bracelet on the way to school one day. But long after I lost it, that gift made me feel like someone special. I thought of my soldier friend often while recovering from surgery. He’d made a lasting impression.
Now I was a grown woman, sure of myself and my value in this world. I wish I could give Mia the same confidence, I thought as I left her a tip and headed to the mall. I was browsing some jewelry and spotted a necklace on clearance. It looked something like my long-lost bracelet.
What a coincidence that I’d just been reminiscing about it all these years later. And then it hit me: This is perfect for Mia.
The next time I stopped into the diner I called Mia over to my table and pulled out the necklace. “I want you to know how special you are,” I told her. “You’re a hard worker and you have a great future.”
Mia’s jaw dropped. “All the girls at school are wearing these!” she said. “I’ll love it forever. Thank you!”
Mia rushed to the restroom and came back wearing her new necklace. She resumed her duties, but now her shoulders were straight back and she smiled as she stacked dishes and scrubbed tabletops.
What a blessing to help Mia see how special she was, just like an angel in an Army uniform had done for me.