Small acts of kindness can make a difference


Greg Bean

There was a moving letter to the editor in last week’s edition of one of our newspapers, the Suburban, from a woman named Rosemary Mulvanerton, who wanted to thank the staff of a local Wendy’s restaurant for making her husband a cheeseburger.

It seems Ms. Mulvanerton’s husband had been in the hospital for the six days prior to Christmas Eve, but had eaten nothing because of his illness and because he didn’t care for hospital food. After Christmas Eve Mass, she promised to bring him a cheeseburger, and he was looking forward to it. When she got to the restaurant, however, they had closed early for the holiday and the doors were locked. She could see people moving around inside, so she knocked on the door and explained her situation.

“I explained to the manager how my husband was in the hospital and how I had promised to bring him a cheeseburger,” she wrote. “Even though the restaurant was closed and the workers were cleaning up, the manager and his staff prepared a cheeseburger for my husband and even a hamburger for me. When they brought me the bag, I asked what the cost was, and they replied, ‘Merry Christmas.’ Thank you, Wendy’s employees.”

You wouldn’t think a cheeseburger could be such an important thing in someone’s life, unless you’ve spent a lengthy time in the hospital yourself and remember how important the promise of anything as normal as a cheeseburger can be.

Then, that cheeseburger can take on an almost mythic importance (in the hospital once, I spent a whole day dreaming of chicken fingers). And years from now, it’s my bet the Mulvanerton family will still be talking about that cheeseburger and the Wendy’s that gave it away.


Sometimes, a small kindness like Mrs. Mulvanerton’s cheeseburger is really a great kindness in disguise, and that’s something I know from experience. This time of year, I always remember one in particular. About 20 years ago, I was out of work and had been offered a new job halfway across the country, where I knew no one and had no friends or contacts.

So two weeks before Christmas, we packed all our belongings into a decrepit U-Haul truck and moved our three young sons to Massachusetts, where we spent more than a week in a motel we could ill afford, while we desperately tried to find a suitable home to rent. We finally found one — in the middle of the woods. After the paperwork was signed, after handing over most of our remaining money and getting lost about a dozen times, we eventually pulled up to the house in our U-Haul — which promptly got stuck in the snow.


It was now three days before Christmas, and as my wife and I sat forlornly on the tailgate of the truck, our spirits finally hit bottom. The truck had to be back by midnight, which meant the two of us had less than 12 hours to unload all of our furniture and possessions into the house (it had taken me and two burly friends an entire day to load the thing before the move), lug them up two flights of stairs, dig the truck out of the snow bank, winch it up 100 feet of steep driveway to the road, and drive it 30 miles to the nearest dealership.

Did I mention there were only two of us adults? That we were in the middle of the woods in a stuck U-Haul? With no phone? No food? That we were nearly broke? That the baby was crying? That it was three days before Christmas? That we were exhausted and facing a task of seemingly insurmountable proportions? I don’t think either of us had ever felt so low.

“We can’t do this,” I said. “No way.”

“We have to,” my wife said. “And it’s not getting done while we sit here feeling sorry for ourselves.”

I’m not making it up when I say it was that exact moment when a four-wheel drive pick-up pulled into our driveway and two men, who introduced themselves as Rusty and Randy, got out. Immediately, they set to pulling our furniture, appliances and boxes out of that U-Haul and packing them into our house. Whenever we’d try to help, they’d just laugh and say it went faster without us.

Three hours later, they were done unloading the truck, and one of them — I can’t remember whether it was Rusty or Randy — got a shovel out of his pick-up and dug the U-Haul out of the snow bank. Then they hooked a log chain to the U-Haul and pulled it to the road so we could return it before the deadline.

We thanked them, of course, and offered to pay them for their work. They refused.

“We’re on payroll, so our boss already took care of it,” Rusty or Randy said.

“Who’s your boss?” I asked. “At least let us thank him.”

“He’s just somebody who thought you could use a hand,” Rusty or Randy said. “He doesn’t expect anything in return.”

And then they drove away.

It wasn’t until a few years later, when we were telling that story to one of our neighbors, that we finally discovered who our benefactor had been. He owned a local tree farm, our neighbor said, and had seen us sitting — cold, miserable and dejected — on the tailgate of the U-Haul. Rusty and Randy worked for him, so he took pity and sent them over to welcome us to the neighborhood by unloading our truck.

He was surprised when my wife tracked him down to finally offer thanks.

“It was nothing,” he said. “Just simple, common courtesy.”

A small kindness, for him. But to me, and my struggling family that grim December day, it made a huge difference. We got the truck back on time, and with all the heavy lifting done, had time left over to find a tree (at our benefactor’s lot, although we didn’t know it at the time) and go shopping for Christmas presents.

Years later, we still tell the story around our kitchen table. A small kindness, my wife says as she tells it for the millionth time, is sometimes a great kindness in disguise.

Just something to think about as we face the new year.


If you have a similar story to share, send it to me care of this newspaper. If I get some good ones, I’ll print them in a future column.

Gregory Bean is executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers.