Life lessons. Sadly, we learn too many of them the hard way. But once in a while, usually at the most unexpected times, life brings us those special sweet moments that set us aglow inside and teach us the most precious truths of all.
For me, one of those moments came along as leaves were falling and time was running out on one of my favorite years—1969. Yes, it was quite a long time ago.
Autumn had come to Georgia. The hot days of summer were behind us, and autumn’s cooler breeze gently moved through the pines on the campus of the little suburban college where Mary Ann was attending classes five days per week. It was a Monday, and I was meeting her for lunch promptly at one o’clock.
The menu would be limited to the three boxes of Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips steaming in a sack on the front seat next to me as I turned my '64 Ford into the college parking lot. Mary Ann had seen my car as I’d navigated my way through the college’s main gate, and she was there to meet me when I pulled into a parking space alongside a particularly towering pine. What a beautiful day it was, and what a beautiful girl with whom to spend it!
With both the driver and passenger doors open wide, our drinks on the dashboard and WQXI (Quixie In Dixie) blasting from the dashboard speaker, we were talking, laughing, joking, eating and having a picnic in my car, a full-fledged private party right there in a public parking lot. If anyone else was on the campus that day, I failed to notice them. All of my attention was focused on the girl sitting next to me.
At the top of the hour the radio news said that developments in the Sharon Tate murders were bringing investigators closer to the killers, that the Soviet Union had offered its own plan for bringing peace to the Israelis and Palestinians, and that the testimony of a sheriff’s deputy had shed new light on Ted Kennedy’s role in the untimely death of Mary Jo Kopechne. These stories were important, but not nearly as important to me as whether or not Mary Ann liked the fried fish and malt vinegar I had brought her.
Okay, batter-fried fish and malt vinegar may not sound like anything special, but that’s because it’s 2017. Things that were kind of special in 1969 have become commonplace and blasé to jaded Americans in this day and age. Our picnic fare that day was Mary Ann’s first encounter with a staple of British noonday tables, and the first hot lunch she'd had in some time. There were no food facilities at the college yet (the school was new and unfinished), and Mary Ann had bitterly complained for several days of finding nothing to eat there except stale pastries in vending machines. I had hoped to win some points with her by bringing hot food. Food was always dear to Mary Ann, and I hoped to become dear as well.
Of the three boxes of fish and french fries, Mary Ann ate two. She worked her way through four mini-cups of malt vinegar, a large Dr. Pepper and a peach fried pie. When all was done, she looked into the empty sack to be sure that nothing had been overlooked.
After confirming that the sack was, indeed, empty, she turned to me, looked into my eyes, and I could see satisfaction on her face. She was unmistakably pleased, and this pleased me. I knew I had done well in bringing the sacks of steaming whitefish, and I anxiously awaited my reward. Surely, there would be words of appreciation, and if I was really lucky my reward might even include a kiss. What I got was something better—one of those sweet life lessons I spoke about.
Whether it came to her instinctively or was the product of training and practice, what Mary Ann meted out to me was a measured response, one calculated to let me know she had enjoyed the time we spent together and to encourage my continuing thoughtfulness. It was a response which should be taught not only to every young woman in America, but to every diplomat and State Department envoy into whose hands our foreign policy is entrusted.
"I've had a great time with you this afternoon, Prentice. And you deserve a big kiss for the fish and chips," Mary Ann said. "But, I have decided to first wait and see what you bring me tomorrow!"
What genius this girl possessed. In one stroke she had told me that she’d liked the fish, appreciated my efforts to bring her lunch, enjoyed my company, and encouraged me to see her again the following day. I felt like a million bucks, and she had ensured that I’d be there tomorrow with fish and chips or better. A masterstroke of diplomacy!
And, what a valuable lesson I learned. Oh, not at that moment, but over the many years through which I have reflected on that day long ago. Over the past forty-eight years, Mary Ann has ended each day with an anticipation in her heart of what I would bring her tomorrow and an assurance to me that my gift will never go unnoticed or unappreciated. Every day I bring her all of my love, and every day she ensures that I will bring it again tomorrow. — Prentice