My family has been volunteering for the past couple weeks at our church's pumpkin patch. It has become an annual tradition to get a little dirt under our fingernails as we attempt to master the trade of pumpkin sales at St. Andrew's United Methodist Church. The proceeds from the sale go to benefit the youth program and its many activities and missions.
There are many volunteer opportunities at St. Andrew's, but my favorite, by far, is the pumpkin patch, perhaps because it gives me prime seating for the best reality show there is — humankind.
I am a self-purported people watcher. I have always been drawn to people, and to watching them, and I think it's absolutely amazing that there are stories happening around us all the time, each one unique to its owner. Like snowflakes, no two are the same. Curious by nature, I delight in hearing the stories all around me.
A few days ago while working a shift at the patch I met a young, single mom, just 22 years old and already the mother of two small children, the youngest sleeping contentedly in a stroller as the older, almost 3 years old, ran between pallets of pumpkins searching for the "one with the most bumps."
A day or two later there was the missionary couple and their three small children home from the far reaches of the world for a visit with local family. It was their childrens’ first visit to a pumpkin patch, and I found it endearing to watch them take joy in this new experience.
I talked to couples married more than 50 years selecting a pumpkin to carve with their grandchildren, newlyweds choosing fall decorations for their first home, awkward teenagers forced by parents to pose with younger siblings for photographs amidst the sea of orange.
Most memorable was an elderly man who seemed almost comically out of place as he ventured into the chaos of the patch during a particularly busy time. He had entered a setting where he clearly did not seem to belong, dressed in his black cuffed trousers and white buttoned down shirt with bowtie.
Carefully he made his way through the patch, slightly hunched over and moving ever so slowly. People were rushing all around him and though he must have at one time been a tall, probably muscular man, I now worried the teenagers running around would knock him over. Still, although slow, he moved with purpose. Every now and then he would lift his eyes for a view of this new world around him in which he seemed to be more observer than participant. He shook his head at an offer of assistance and finally, after a deliberate search, found what it was he was looking for, one small, round pumpkin. His purchase complete, he was met at the gate by an equally elderly man, perhaps a brother or a friend, who guided him to a waiting car, and they drove away.
In the days since I have thought quite often about the man and what must be his huge collection of stories.
I believe the people we encounter and our experiences with them greatly shape the stories of our lives. Furthermore, I believe each of us has the power to choose our story and, in choosing, we determine the quality and direction of our lives.
We all know it is quite easy to judge people at face value, and while I won't discredit the truth that people sometimes are exactly as they seem, there are times when I am actually jarred by the realization of just how inaccurate my first impression can be.
Saturday night I was working a shift at the pumpkin patch. At the close of the evening my sole accompaniment was my young son as the other adults working that night had left moments prior to drive our tired teenage volunteers home for the night.
Just as I was getting ready to unplug the lights, allowing darkness to encompass the pumpkin patch, a very large, very loud F-150 Ford pick-up truck with off-road tires pulled into the parking lot and four large, burly, tattooed men entered the patch. I admit that the only reason I know what type of truck they were driving is the driver somewhat boastfully informed me when I, in an attempt to begin a conversation thinking to myself that these men would never rob someone that could identify them, sweetly remarked, "nice truck."
From the time they pulled up in their mammoth vehicle, the boom-boom-boom of the bass causing the ground beneath my feet to vibrate, I nervously wondered if they had been casing the joint (clearly I have seen way too many crime dramas). I kicked at my purse on the ground beside my feet in an attempt to conceal it under the table and I silently cursed the sudden lull of traffic on Bloomingdale Avenue.
Why in the world would these four, very large, very scary looking men want pumpkins?
To carve, of course, or at least that's what I discovered as they purchased four of our biggest pumpkins, proving my "sizing up" skills need serious work when they told me to keep the change, a substansial amount, to add to the youth fund. And as they exited the patch the driver turned back to me, and said, "Make an impact."
"Huh," I responded, confused.
He lifted the sleeve of his "Sweet Home Alabama" T-shirt and pointed to a large tattoo extending from his shoulder to his elbow that read, "Make an impact."
To clarify, he grinned and said, "Live your life so you make an impact."
Isn't it ironic that sometimes we learn the most powerful lessons from those we don't expect to have anything worthwhile to add to our story?