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A Lesson in Hitchhiking

Early summer morning, low clouds spitting rain. My girls are running late for work again. They’ve been lolly-gagging in the bathroom and we need to be on the road to the local market, where they’re getting their first taste of earning an honest wage.

I wear my “annoyed face” as they scurry to the car, but secretly, I’m proud of them. They’ve been pulling long hours and early mornings, mopping floors, making sandwiches and wiping tables, rarely complaining about missing summer fun with their unemployed friends.

Easing off our local road onto the highway, I spot the man, his back leaning into the uphill climb. He pivots to face us and sticks out his thumb, a study in gray; cargo pants, T-shirt, ashy beard and weathered face, scuffed boots. Even his backpack is the color of old smoke.

I shift into third gear, and we lock eyes, the only two souls on the road. I make an apologetic face as I blow by him, as if to say I can’t chance this. An understanding smile transforms his weary face, sparkling up his eyes and suddenly an inner voice rears up, scolding me.

You, the scoldy voice says, chauffeuring your twins to work in your foreign car. You, with your close extended family, your supportive friends, your family summer cottage at the lake, your more-than-enough…

Surprising myself, I brake, stop, reverse on the sandy shoulder and unlock the car. The girls, heads bent in prayer to their cell phones, look up quizzically.

“Mom!” Aghast. Jaw drops in the front seat. “What are you doing?” Snapchat is momentarily forgotten.

“I’m giving him a ride.” A thousand questions roll across my daughter’s face. Has my Mom lost her mind? What about stranger danger? And, mostly likely, “we’re already late.”

“It’s OK,” I say, not completely certain that it is. “I’ve seen him twice now, when I’ve been walking toward the trail head. Both times he’s made a friendly comment about the day, like he wanted to make sure I wasn’t afraid.”

“Mom! Are you kidding?” my more vocal twin protests from the back.

“Hey, he’s like clockwork. Clearly he’s got somewhere to go. He’s just not… just not…. as fortunate as us.”

Fortunate is one of those mothering words we unleash when we’re dishing out a drumroll life lesson. Only I hadn’t planned on this one at all. It was just sort of unfolding.

In the rearview mirror, I see my girls exchange worried looks. The door opens, the man slides in, smelling like the bottom of an ashtray. He smiles and I swivel around to smile back.

“Thanks very much,” he says with a New England accent.

“We can take you as far as Hague. That alright?”

“Great. I’m headed to work in Ticonderoga. Appreciate it.” Twenty miles away. My girls are muted by their mother’s reckless behavior, disoriented from the sudden appearance of the total stranger in the back of our car.

“During the week there’s usually construction guys that pick me up,” he offers gently. “Hasn’t been much rain this summer, which makes it easier on the commute.” There is no malice, no self-pity. I imagine my girls calculating the effort and unpredictability of having to hitchhike to work, the buffer of time you’d have to build in to your morning. No messing around in the bathroom, no sleeping till the last possible minute.

“I’ve passed you a few times on the road when I’m hiking early,” I say.

We continue to chat pleasantly, like people who meet on a train. I watch the edges of my daughter’s judgment soften as he speaks. He explains he’s from New Hampshire, and had moved to upstate New York with his wife 15 years ago to care take a house. The rent was cheap and they’d simply stayed on.

He’d fallen on leaner times, and there were surely other, harder truths to his life story. But he is kind and warm and appreciative and in the short span of our drive, those traits rise up and overpower the doubt and caution. His gratitude sifts around the interior of the car like a fine mist.

We bank a curve and the road spills out along the water, as he explains how much he enjoys walking certain stretches. He loves the morning solitude, the glass flat lake, the forlorn call of the loons that have returned to populate the area.

“You going to be OK?” I glide over to the shoulder before the fork in the road. “Someone else will pick you up?”

“Oh, sure. Always do. I get to meet some of the nicest people,” he opens the door and slides out of the car with his pack. A smile cracks his face into a hundred wrinkles as he leans back in.

“Most people… most ladies,” he corrects, “are a little afraid of picking up hitchhikers and I want you to know how much I appreciate it.” He shoulder his pack with a wink as my girls offer a shy goodbye.

The twins are silent as we pick up speed. “I’ve never seen you do that before,” says my daughter.

“I’m not sure I ever have. But I took a chance. All three of you needed a ride to work this morning.” Silence.

“It’s a good reminder, eh?” I look in the rearview mirror but their eyes are on their phones again. “Just because someone looks a little scruffy, doesn’t mean they aren’t a decent person.”

Silence. There were a million other things I could have said after that, but it would have undercut the moment. A good sermon doesn’t need a conclusion.

We pull up in front of the Hague Market and the girls tumble out of the car, mumbling goodbye, slipping on their work baseball caps, stuffing phones in back pockets. I watch their beautiful 16-year old selves walk through the door and prepare to tie on aprons, secure in the fact that this summer job is a mere interlude, a temporary experience, but a lesson in hard work.

I drive home without the radio, anticipating the quiet of my cottage, already tasting that first cup of coffee in my mug. I think about the fact that my children have choices. Their father and I work hard to ensure that.

I think about the fact that for a moment, second-guessing my impulsive decision to pull over, I had been nervous. And then I think about how sometimes the perfect reminder of our daily, unexamined blessings come to us in the most unexpected ways.

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