Small but Steadfast

Posted on in Healthy Living by Julia Cho

The Merit of Remembrance


“I’ll start with small things.”
—Vincent Van Gogh

Most mornings, we walk the few blocks to my daughter Audrey’s school. On the way, a crossing guard helps us cross a busy street. Anyone who has had to use a crossing guard on a daily basis knows that one develops that everyday familiarity with a person who you know little about except maybe a first name eventually. We talk about the cold weather or the fact that it’s Friday—mostly small talk, but genuine small talk nonetheless. Our crossing guard is a man in his 60s or even 70s with clear blue eyes, skin that looks like it’s gotten a lot of sun, and, as is especially apparent this winter, a very high tolerance for cold weather. He’s always smiling and quite bravely stepping right into that street of commuters in a hurry with his stop sign. His name, I overheard another mother call out to him once, is Ron.

students go to school through the crossing

A couple weeks ago, I witnessed an interesting exchange between Ron and another woman who crosses the street on her way to the school. This woman comes from down the hill, pushing a stroller upward, sometimes with another small child at her side. She is a nanny or a grandmother also in her 60s or 70s. She wears scarves around her head, long dresses and coats, and reminds me a little bit of the children’s book character Strega Nona. I’m not sure if she speaks any English.

On one of our recent arctic days, I see her quickly hand something to the crossing guard ahead of me, and he calls back, “Thanks” as she keeps walking without turning back.

“What was that all about?” I ask Ron.

“Oh, once a week she always brings me pancakes.”

“That’s so nice,” I say as I cross.

It was such a subtle exchange I might have missed it, but I didn’t. Something about the exchange has stayed with me, and I think the Thanksgiving season is a perfect time to meditate on why that was.

First, it is a small and simple thing—pancakes. A random thing really. Who gives their crossing guard pancakes once a week? Well, this woman does. Whether the crossing guard has a penchant for pancakes or not, this is what she has to offer, and so she does. Second, she made the exchange with such little fanfare. There was no small talk, and as I said, her walking was uninterrupted, and her generosity almost imperceptible to someone walking directly behind as I was. A subtle but important acknowledgment of his work—that she sees him. We all need to feel seen. And finally, this isn’t a one-time thing. It’s a weekly, dependable thing. Every week.

Small. Subtle. Steadfast.

These aren’t words that are popular in our society. We want to be big, not small. The gifts we give are even wrapped to impress, and we expect thank-you notes afterward. We want to be successful and revered. We want people to see the work we’ve done and appreciate it. How hard it is to offer something anonymously without the warm fuzzy feeling of watching the recipient receive it.

This past Christmas at church, my daughter and I chose a card from a little girl, also 6, from a board of cards with gift requests from local needy children. We bought her toys and clothes and got them all ready, but Audrey was disappointed she wouldn’t get to actually hand it to the child. “But I want to see her open it,” she bemoaned. A difficult first lesson in giving without any expectation of return.

And steadfast? This term seems mostly out of style, with the advent of other terms like conscious uncoupling. We can squint over the human landscape for a long time before we come across steadfastness. We live in a world where marriage vows dissolve as people “outgrow” each other, where people move to new locations and new jobs many times in their careers and lifetimes, and we are quick to discard last year’s phone model for this year’s. We are not a society of consumers who are too attached to their material items, but rather completely detached. Gone are the days when my grandmother, having lived and worked through the Great Depression, kept a stockpile of every empty jar or container on her porch rather than throw it out. We are prone to dispose of rather than mend, to move on rather than mourn, to edit out rather than preserve. Steadfast, stead coming from “place” and fast, “to hold onto.”

I remember knowing almost immediately after my husband died that most of the people surrounding me would disappear shortly after the funeral. I spoke to a pastor on the phone about this in the first few weeks. He had lost his wife and children in a car accident years ago. “Some will stay, though, some will stay,” he told me, recounting an old woman who left soup outside his door every single week for more than a year.

My “old woman with soup” turned out to be a friend—really an acquaintance I’m not sure I’d ever even had a conversation with, a young mother of two herself, from our old church in Brooklyn. But after my husband died, there she was suddenly. She sent me a simple email message every single day for at least two to three years. She expected no response, and rarely did I give one. Her subject line was always just the day’s date, “March 20, 2011,” and her messages were brief but genuine. Small, but not small talk. “Dear Julia, Thinking of you today. It’s so sad that Dan is not with you anymore.” “Dear Julia, Thinking of you today. How is your health these days?” “Dear Julia, It’s a rainy week. I hope you can get your spirits up.” In that simple way, unnoticed by anyone else but me, she walked with me, acknowledging my pain, quietly seeing me there.

This friend taught me about steadfastness. A simple “thinking of you” becomes powerful when compounded day after day. At times, her messages became so everyday, so commonplace, it seemed I hardly noticed them. But they were there. And they made a difference in my healing, and they still make a difference to me now. I have since tried to do the same for new young widows, and I can tell you it’s surprisingly hard! I too forget and get busy with the everyday details of my own life. Just because something appears simple does not mean it is easy. Simple and easy are two very different things.

In actuality, there’s risk involved in giving of ourselves in this way. My friend risked talking about my husband—something many people were too afraid to do. The old woman handing out pancakes is risking that maybe Ron doesn’t like pancakes at all. But the risks we incur when we choose to do nothing turn out to be far greater and much more long-term. “I can’t do everything, but I can do something” has become my mantra of late when I’m overwhelmed (which is all the time).

And then I wonder what small, subtle, and steadfast exchange with another human being I have right now in my life, and I come up empty. I think and think. I do things here and there, send a package to a friend, a card to someone in pain, but nothing consistent. Nothing that demands that steadfast quality. Once a week, every week. And then it occurs to me—I write a blog once a week. I show up, whether inspiration strikes or not, because I know this is all I have to offer. Sometimes it is hard to send off my words with little acknowledgment or feedback—“but I want to see her open it,” said Audrey about the gift. But for the most part, unless we are famous, that is the quiet job of a writer. Best to hand over our words and keep walking, as the woman did after her wordless exchange with Ron.

For me, words provide enormous comfort, and I feel most seen when I read something that resonates. So these words are my subtle exchange with readers that are mostly unknown to me, but to whom I hope they offer some sustenance, some insight, some certainty that you are seen and not -forgotten.

Julia Cho, MFA, currently writes at and is working on her first book. On her widely read blog, Dear Audrey, she chronicled her grief process after the sudden death of her husband.

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