A Napkin Full of Notes

I recently rediscovered that it’s hard to write on napkins. It’s frustrating to convey something important in time-consuming print at all, let alone when the pen keeps tearing holes in the surface on which you’re scribbling. No, MATH 101 didn’t finally exhaust my stock of paper, nor did a cute guy at Scooter’s ask for my number. Instead, on that folded piece of fragile “paper,” a new friendship was transcribed.

Through the Campus Ministry-sponsored program Wash My Feet, groups of St. Thomas students scatter through the Twin Cities to do different Christ-motivated acts of service, such as packaging food for impoverished people around the world or helping teach at a charter school for an afternoon.

I found myself, during lunchtime at a nursing home, sitting by a white-haired woman in a bright red sweater. Her name was Mary. She asked me if I was a student and I told her, “I go to the University of St. Thomas.” She looked confused, and apologized. Mary simply couldn’t hear me. I tried again. I wasn’t loud enough (and believe me, I was loud judging from the heads swiveling towards me). I was at a loss. Here was someone right in front of me who had asked a simple question, and I couldn’t get a simple answer back to her. I then realized I was wearing a St. Thomas sweatshirt. Stretching it out so she could read the bold lettering, I waited a second before her eyes lit up. “Good old St. Thomas!” Mary proclaimed.  And I smiled. And, because of the written word, a friendship was forged.

With a napkin and a nurse’s pen, Mary and I “talked” extensively. She loved to share from her store of memories, to the point where I had to remind her to eat. We discovered little things we had in common: we love the color red, enjoy watching children and have brothers named Paul. She fussed over me, giving me her teacup saucer and piling it with food. She had the staff bring me ice cream.  She apologized for “wearing me out” with all the writing.

And I found myself delighting in Mary’s frank honesty, different from a child’s only in that it was softened by politeness. She often forgot things I told her, but it was fun to see the brightness of her eyes return every time she relearned that I’m the youngest of 10 or that my mother went to St. Catherine, just like her.

I found myself blessed – blessed to have sat with this woman and shared in her wisdom and her gracefulness. It was all so ironic. I went out to serve and help her, but I found myself receiving much more instead: insight into what’s important, a full stomach, a friend and a napkin full of notes.