On a recent visit home, I had a chance to see a group of friends from childhood, one of which is expecting a baby with his wife. He, I’ve known since the first grade; she, I met five years ago when they first started dating. But she is pure loveliness and fits in so well, I feel like I’ve known her my whole life. One evening, as she and I were chatting about her impending motherhood and I was waiting with my hands on her belly hoping for a kick, I told her husband that he found a really great woman and I was a happy to have her in our circle. As he thanked me, I went on to thank him for not letting her get away. And I told him that it felt really good to be able to say that and genuinely mean it. He delivered a second [this time modest] thank you as if taken aback by the sincerity of it all. And then I told him the story of when I first learned the importance of giving compliments.
I was probably six years old, and my sister Kristina five. We were with our mother at the checkout in the local grocery store, this rinky-dink place called Pantry Pride where everything was a little dingy and seeing a pretty face was like seeing sunshine after weeks of gloomy weather. The cashier—I remember her like she’s in front of me now—was a petite but slightly plump woman that I’m guessing was around 60 (though who really knows, because how accurately can a six year old gauge one’s age?). She had dark grey shoulder-length hair that she wore in big curls like from hot rollers, and thin wire-frame glasses that sat on the end of her nose. Her cheeks were a soft pink, like the color of raspberry sherbet, and her lipstick, a few shades darker. She had pale blue eye shadow on her eyelids and her eyelashes were long and lush. It sounds garish I know—first for a 60-year-old woman, next, for the grocery store—but it wasn’t. Honestly, she looked just like Mrs. Claus to me, but of course, in a different outfit.
Kristina was mesmerized the woman’s beauty as she watched her ringing up our groceries. She tugged at our mom’s arm and whispered up to her, “Mommy she’s pretty.” My mother looked back at her and replied, “She is pretty honey, but you need to tell her. If you don’t, she’ll never know.” So Kristina (who usually was not shy, but here, so in awe, was hiding behind our mom) mustered up the courage to lift her little head up to the woman and said, “You’re pretty.”
The woman beamed.
“See?” my mother said on the way out of the store. “Did you notice how she smiled when you told her? Whenever you have something nice to say about someone, you should say it to them. If you keep it to yourself, how will they know?” We nodded, acknowledging her instructions. “When you give a person a compliment, it makes them happy.”
I tell this story often, and whenever I do, I think yes, how wonderful it is that with something as simple as a few kind words, we are able to make one another happy, even if we’re strangers. As far away as that day in the grocery store is, I will never forget it. What a great lesson I learned from my mother that afternoon.
I have carried it with me ever since.