One of my favorite Christmas memories was one I shared with our son, Greg, several years before he was married.
A week before Christmas I left our home in Staunton, Va. on Amtrak and arrived at Union Terminal in Cincinnati in the middle of the morning. A few days later, a family member drove me to Lexington where I would spend the rest of my vacation with Greg.
We had a delightful time, but our visit, like all good things, had come to an end.
My plans were to ride a Greyhound bus from Lexington to Charleston, W.Va., then the following day ride Amtrak home to Staunton.
The happy Christmas memories began to fade as Greg and I approached the Lexington bus station on New Circle Road. The bus was an hour late, and knowing he needed to get back to work, I told Greg he didn’t need to stay with me.
I became choked up as Greg waved and pulled away from the station as I sat on a wooden bench in the light snow to await the bus.
It was New Year’s Eve and the trip to Charleston was long and lonely. We sputtered through small town after small town, winding endlessly through the remote mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia. My mood became more somber as the trip, and the night, wore on.
As we entered Charleston, I noticed a large highway sign that announced the opening of a new Microtel motel just off MacCorkle Avenue. I hailed a cab from downtown and immediately checked into the hotel. I discovered the desk clerk and I were the only two people in the motel. She was sitting in the lobby watching television and eating a pizza.
“Would you like a piece of pizza?” she asked.
I normally don’t take food from strangers, but I was hungry and it was late. As I sat down the clerk handed me a piece of pepperoni pizza. She was friendly and talkative. She talked about her job, her husband, their new camper and their daughter.
When she mentioned her daughter, sadness and an obscure darkness befell her. “She’s been gone two years now,” she said quietly, bowing her head.
“Had your daughter been sick?” I asked.
“Not really. She was heartsick, I guess,” she answered.
The clerk, who was about 50 years old, went on. “My daughter, Sheila, joined me at the Holiday Inn down the street as soon as she turned 18,” she said. “She loved her new job in housekeeping. Sheila was a friendly girl and always had a smile on her face. There wasn’t a nicer young lady in Kanawha County.”
Tears began to well up in the woman’s eyes. She said a lot of men stayed at the Holiday Inn when they were in town to visit the coal mines and Dow Chemical; and as young girls sometimes do, her daughter developed a crush on a traveling man who came to town about every two weeks.
“He seemed like a nice young man. He was polite and courteous. Within a few months she learned she was expecting a baby,” she said.
As she spoke, a tear rolled down her cheek and landed on the table beside the pizza box.
“It wasn’t long before the young man quit coming to Charleston. He told us his job in Atlanta would keep him at home from now on,” she said.
The clerk went on to tell me that the young man stayed in contact with her daughter, writing her every week, sometimes twice a week. He’d told her he was going to have her join him in Atlanta and get married as soon as he found a larger apartment.
“Then, I noticed the letters stopped coming as often,” the clerk said. “He wrote to her for about nine months and then the letters stopped.”
The clerk told me she was sitting with her daughter one night, about this time in the evening, when her daughter, with tears in her eyes, told her she had received another letter from the young man. It was the last letter she ever received from him.
“Dear Sheila,” the letter began. “I hope you and the baby are doing well. I regret to inform you I married someone else last weekend, and will not be in contact with you any longer. Do try to forgive me.”
“If a person ever died of broken heart, it was my daughter,” the woman said. “She died about a year after the last letter arrived. I miss her terribly.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” I stammered, as I got up slowly and made my way back to my room.
When I reached my motel room I sat down on the bed. My holiday season had turned from one of the happiest to one of the saddest in a matter of hours. It was uncomfortable to listen to the woman’s story, but it was one she needed to tell, if only to a stranger.
There is healing power in sharing grief. It may be the most powerful medicine on earth.
I never think of Charleston or New Year’s Eve, for that matter, that I don’t think about the lonely motel clerk and the sad story she told me years ago.
St. Matthew reminds us, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to Me.’
I pray it helped.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County commissioner and former Clinton County sheriff.