I just finished reading Amy Hill Hearth’s Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women’s Literary Society. I empathized with Dora, the narrator in the story, known in the community as “the Turtle Lady.” Dora did what she could in Naples, Florida, to save turtles from being squished by motorists unaware and liked doing it anonymously. Of course, she was found out. I will admit that as an aging woman in a little round body, I would like to be anywhere except with a camera aimed at me. That said, I am going to out myself as “That Woman” with the hope that it might create a ripple in the ponds we inhabit.
Someone asked me recently what got me started with Literacy & Hope. Although this sounds like the lead-in to bad pulp fiction: It all started on a chilly, rainy summer day in Pennsylvania at a library book sale. I was a single mom with two children: one a voracious reader and the other with learning challenges that made it difficult to learn to read. It was our annual day of ”feeling rich” because you could stuff as many books into a sack as you wanted for $5. For $20 we could each have a bag of books and one left over for photo and art books to broaden our view of the world. There was a lot to pick from because few people came out in the ugly weather to attend the basement sale. My daughter, Kat, asked the librarian what would happen to the books that weren’t sold and came running to me with the answer: They would go to a pulp mill to be ground up for notebook paper. She insisted we had to “rescue” them. I agreed and asked the librarian for 2 hours before she called the pulp mill truck. The look on her face said it all: You’re crazy. But she agreed.
At home, I thought about who could use this mini-library of books. I placed two fruitless phone calls, but the third call, to the county jail, connected—they had an empty room lined with shelves and a failed grant to get books for prisoners. They would send a truck and inmates to get them. I told them to just send the truck. I had other ideas. I called a local Boy Scout troop, then a Girl Scout troop and lined up book-toters eager to earn community service badges. My last call was to local TV, offering them a great story about a local library creating a library for the jail with used books and kids doing service to get them there. The next day books were loaded with cameras rolling and the librarian was promising to tell her fellow librarians at an upcoming meeting about how to do this in their counties. The kids made a banner that went with the books, “Welcome to Your New Library” and autographed it with best wishes. One that stuck with me said Maybe if you read books you won’t get into trouble again – Casey. Both Scout leaders told me that they wouldn’t have thought of this as a way to connect the kids with people in jail and the life lessons going on there. Which brings me back to “That Woman.”
I got a friendly reminder this week that it’s Girl Scout cookie drive time. Every woman’s reason to fudge the truth. We don’t buy them. We don’t eat them. We don’t hid a box for ourselves in our panty drawer and tell the kids we don’t know where the Do Si Dos sashayed off to. Ahem. Really. Anyway. The little girls in brown and green station themselves in front of our local grocery stores and snag shoppers with promises of Thin Mint goodness. It seemed like each time I entered or exited the store I would hear another old person turning the Scouts away or a mother shushing her kids with the phrase “we can’t afford it,” hurrying away. About 10 years ago, I followed an impulse after standing behind someone who balked at the price and declined. I told the girls I wanted two boxes and paid my $7. They asked which kind I wanted and I said, “I need you to listen up. I need you to do something.” They looked. Their moms tilted an ear. ”In the next few minutes some old person or some mom with little kids, maybe some guy, is going to come by here and when you say ‘would you like to buy Girl Scout cookies,’ they’re going to say, ‘I can’t afford it.’ That’s when I want you to give them a box of my cookies. Tell them it’s a gift and to have a good day. Can you do that?” I got a couple of blank stares and a couple of lights popped on. I walked away without another word. I’ve been doing it for 10 years. Sometimes I’m pretty sure they kept the money and resold the cookies. Other times, I saw something register on someone’s face. Last year, I did it again and was happy with my clean get-away. But a mom followed me to my car. ”Excuse me, you’re That Woman aren’t you?” I asked what she meant and she said, “We talk about you almost every year at counsel meeting. That Woman who tells the girls to give cookies to people who can’t afford them. It’s…really something.” I nodded and got in my car.
I think every community needs That Woman. The Woman Who Takes Flowers to People She Doesn’t Know at The Hospital. The Dog Lady. The Knitter Women who bring hats to the daycare. It doesn’t take much—just an idea about how to be a stealth ninja for goodness and the ability to look quizzical when someone suggests it’s you. And, maybe, sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat.