Instead of my normal Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day post, let me tell you a story. It’s a story that still gives me chills, but in the best kind of way. I don’t think I’ve told you all this story before, but if I have, please forgive me. The recent terrorism in Paris reminded me. This is a story of the Oklahoma prairie, college, France, Islam, Africa and humanity, but first, a bit of background.
I was born loving everything français. I’m fascinated by their beautiful language, the country, the sense of style, simply everything. I loved French heroes like Lafayette and read many biographies of Napoleon and Josephine. I don’t love Napoleon, but I’m a huge fan of Josephine’s resilience in the face of terror. Don’t know what I mean? Read The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., by Sandra Gulland. In high school, I took French for three years and was secretary of the French club. In college, when I wasn’t using my electives for Botany, it was for French. It is my fondest desire to visit Paris.
In the spring of 1981, I was eighteen years old and a first-semester Freshman at the University of Oklahoma. I worked the semester after graduation because I didn’t have money for college. I also worked the entire time I went to college, but on this April day, I had the day off after my last class. I was sitting on the wall at Dale Hall waiting for my friend, Teresa–now my sister-in-law–to pick me up for lunch. It was one of those perfect Oklahoma spring days where the sun was shining, and the air was sweet. The prairie winds weren’t blowing too hard, and I was glad to be young and alive. Because class had just let out, there were dozens of students walking along the sidewalk in front of me, and I enjoyed watching them pass by. However, soon I noticed a man in his 70s, with an olive complexion and a puzzled and frustrated expression on his face. He was dressed in all white with a round taqiyah–cap–on his head. His white garment was a long tunic with pants beneath, called a salwar kameez. Of course, I didn’t know the names for his garments then. He had on sandals, and he was pacing up and down the sidewalk muttering to himself clearly in distress. Suddenly, while facing away from me, he looked up, turned around and stared at me with the most intense gaze. I wasn’t frightened, but I thought he might be crazy so I didn’t want to talk to him either. Still, I knew he was going to come over and talk to me. My entire life, I have been a magnet for people I don’t know. Bill says it’s my open face, but I don’t think that’s it. I accepted a long time ago that the world doesn’t see me as a stranger, and I’ll chat with anyone. It drives my kids nuts.
So, he made a beeline for me, and the crowd of students parted like the Red Sea. It was odd, and time even seemed to slow down. I thought, oh no, here we go again, and I prepared myself for him to say something crazy, but, instead, he surprised me.
“Parlez-vous francais?” he asked.
“Oui, j’ai parle un peu.” I spoke a little, and I meant very little in spite of still taking French in college. He then let off in a stream of rapid-fire French I couldn’t follow because I was barely conversant.
“Lentement, lentement.” Slowly, slowly.
He slowed down and proceeded to tell me that he was lost. “Je suis perdu.” He told me with sign language and French that he was from Persia and visiting his son. He took a walk and got lost, and I could tell he was very worried. Who wouldn’t be?
About that time, Teresa showed up in her car, and I asked him to wait while I spoke to her. He waited patiently, seemingly assured I would get him home. Well, I was having a dickens of a time because I didn’t know enough French, and he was clueless about where he was. I explained to Teresa what was going on, and I asked her if she’d drive us to the language department on campus. We coaxed him into the car. Such trust! I took him with me inside and then tried to find someone–anyone–who spoke French.
Alas, everyone was out to lunch. The halls were empty. I wasn’t sure what to do because he couldn’t remember his son’s phone number or address. Suddenly, one of the teachers left his classroom and walked into the hall. He was a handsome and tall black man who I later learned was from Africa. I just knew–I can’t say how–that he spoke French. So, I wasn’t surprised when he said yes. I explained our problem, and he began questioning the man and invited him to sit on a bench. The man kept telling us his son lived near a building with a masque. Remember this was 1981, and our sum total experience with Islamic countries was the hostage crisis in Iran the previous year. We racked our brains trying to think of costume shops nearby. Then, the college instructor snapped his fingers and began talking rapidly to the other man asking him whether by masque he meant l’eglise, church. The man nodded, and the teacher explained to me he meant a mosque. Of course! Then, it turned out the teacher from Africa was Muslim, and he knew exactly where the mosque was. He told the man they would find his son’s house.
The man turned to me, hugged me and said, “Merci, merci jolie petite jeune fille.” Thank you, thank you, pretty little girl.
I was so happy I left the building walking on air. We’d managed to overcome a lot of barriers to help this man get home. The University of Oklahoma sits in the middle of the Oklahoma prairie, and yet, somehow this man knew out of all the other students in front of Dale Hall that I spoke enough French to get him help.
Since he told me he was from Persia, I believe he was Iranian, but I never asked. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was helping him get back to his son.
I was sitting in church today and I thought of this story with all its wonderful connections. Connections all human beings share. We all have a love of country and a love of home. Most people want to help others and will do so when called upon.
I know it’s now fashionable not to believe in God, but I know He exists. I know He sent that man to me, and in turn, helped me think of a way to get him to the one person who could immediately help him. I also believe God is universal and loves us all.
I’ll never understand why ISIS terrorists hurt the people of Paris and Beirut, and I won’t even try. Instead, I’ll hold onto all of the people in Paris, Beirut, Kenya and other torn places, including Oklahoma City in 1995, who reached out to others once the terror stopped. Those who opened their homes for safety. Those who tended the wounded. Those who will bury the dead. When you feel blown about by the winds of a cruel world, find something or someone to hang onto, and you’ll be okay. For me, that’s my unshakable belief in God and the good and gracious people of this Earth we all call home.
Next spring, Bill and I will go to London and Paris, and I’ll realize a dream fifty-three years in the making. I’ll also stand beneath the Eiffel Tower and think of everyone we’ve lost and pray for all of those who must stand up for liberté, égalité, and fraternité–freedom, equality and brotherhood—in a world that sometimes seems to have gone mad. I’ll also think of an elderly gentleman from Persia who just wanted to get home and say a little prayer for him too. I hope he also prayed for me. I’m sure he did. I saw it in his eyes.