Who Were Your Encouragers?

Around 1990-91, I stepped on an escalator on the first floor of One Court Square, where my new workplace was located. I was wearing a red skirt with a loose thread in the hem. I had become aware earlier that day that the thread was loose but had felt no real concern. What harm could come from a thing like that?

Well. As I mentioned, I stepped on an escalator with this thread by now dangling toward my feet. Somehow that thread got caught in the workings of the escalator and began to unravel my hem as I rode toward the second floor.

I took note of this interesting predicament. If life comes at your fast, response time does not always keep up. A moment later I realized: If I don’t yank this thread free, I might lose my skirt.

Then I became concerned.

It’s not easy to yank a thread free while riding up an escalator. But I did it. I yanked myself free in time to step off at my office floor. None the worse for wear. Well, actually my skirt was worse for wear, as it no longer had a hem. I was fine.

I went to my desk, where I maintained one of the bounties of work life: office supplies. I had a tape dispenser. I applied the strips needed to re-affix my hem. With a new awareness of what loose threads can mean.

This was my job in state government, a position that was often an awkward fit, but one that I was hopefully able to discharge with some degree of competence and appropriate wardrobe choices.

My desk had a phone. The agency of some hundred-plus people had a switchboard. Calls to me were sent to that phone on my desk. If you wanted to put someone on hold, there was a code to park them there and another code to get them back again.

My mother called me at my office one day, and I got a call from someone else at the same time. I thought, I’ll put my mother on hold, and take the work call. That’s how it’s done, and I knew the code to do so. I finished the task, exhaled, about to move to the next thing. Then I gasped: my mother was still on hold. I further realized, I didn’t know how to get her off hold. I couldn’t remember the code to undo.

And – my heart sank – she had called long distance. A rarity, except for that now that she had circle dialing (and I was in her circle), she could call an extended geographical area during the day if needed. I told myself, “Be calm, be calm, be calm. I think it’s…” And I came up with the right code to return my mother to the line.

There was a lot of benefit to my being in that position, but on a personal level I wasn’t sure how well I wore my responsibilities. The issue, I think, was that I did not feel that I could be who I truly am. Doing what I was called to do was the journey I wanted to pursue. Yet here I was going the wrong way.

During my tenure, however, I made a friend named Brenda. Around her, I could always be who I am. When we ate lunch, she always let me pick the place. Whatever I said, she was always on my side.

An African-American lady 14 years my senior, Brenda had grown up in West Palm Beach and in the mid-1960s took a train to DC to attend Howard University. At the Atlanta stop, she met people from Montgomery headed to the same destination. That’s how she eventually ended up here.

The state agency had a primitive email system then – an Intranet that allowed brief interoffice messages. Sometimes I would send Brenda a random thought. One time I sent a musing then walked toward her office as she was removing a sheet of paper from a printer that contained my message. “I’m saving these in a folder,” she said, “so that one day people will know what an interesting friend I had.”

In June 1996, I was in Mobile for a meeting when, back in my hotel room, I called home to find out how my mother’s biopsy had gone. At 5:30 that afternoon, I got terrible news that the biopsy revealed cancer. And in just a short time, I had to attend a work-related dinner. Brenda was the first person I told of this news. I called her room. Then I packaged up those thoughts, got through the evening and headed back to Montgomery the next day.

I lost touch with Brenda years before she passed away in 2016. She had early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. I think of her often.

In any environment, whether you belong there or you don’t, you can find someone who will help you find your way – someone who will help you be who you are. I didn’t always feel good when I worked in state government, but I always felt better when I talked to Brenda. She was the embodiment of the Maya Angelou quote, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

During Brenda’s service, I discovered that I was no exception. Fine people stood up and said glowing things about her, including her brother. I knew he had achieved success of an uncommon kind, reaching a rarified level, but wasn’t sure of his current status. I found out later that Brenda’s brother became chairman of Microsoft when Bill Gates stepped down from that role. As her brother introduced himself to the congregation, he said, “I was the underachiever in the family.” And he choked up as he spoke about a sweet lady who could make anyone feel special.

Take notice of the people around you today – the encouragers and the ones who need encouragement – and enjoy your magnificent journey.

– Minnie Lamberth
The Magnificent Journey
Vol. 2, Issue 5

P.S. Taking and eventually leaving that job in state government to pursue my creative callings is the kind of thing I wrote about in Min at Work. If you missed it, details are here: minnielamberth.com/books