Mr. Jess and I didn't have much in common. We lived in the same small Tennessee community, his farm and ours equally poor. I was a teenage girl and he was in his seventies; I was quick and agile and he was feeble and slow. I talked fast and heard everything; he talked slowly and had trouble hearing anything. But we shared a birthday.
So every year, during the week of our birthday, Mother would have Mr. Jess and his wife Miss Etheline for a birthday dinner at our house. Since that was in the days when banks gave gifts for opening or adding to a savings account, Mr. Jess had a great way of getting me a gift. He'd deposit some money and be given a place setting of silver plate. I wasn't too impressed, but coming from a couple who had always eaten with mismatched, lightweight flatware, I should have been.
I was never thrilled at the prospect, but endured it because my parents said I should. "You mean a lot to Mr. Jess," Mother would say. "This is the least you can do to please an old man."
We'd started this tradition when I was ten, and it ended when I was 16 and had just received my sixth place setting of Oneida silver plate. Little Mr. Jess looked at me across the table and said, "You remember me when you use this silverware. You'll be feeding your family and I'll be out under a tree somewhere, dust returning to dust, as they say. And you can think of me, and think, 'I sure do remember when Mr. Jess gave me this silverware.'"
And he's right--I do. When we have several people for dinner and I turn to the six settings of silver plate to finish the table, I think of Mr. Jess and his prophecy. He's been dead well over 40 years now, but every time I use that silver, I do think of him; I remember his kindness to a disinterested teenager who was nudged by her parents into doing the right thing "to please an old man."
And then I'm prompted to wonder about myself: When I've been dead 40 years, will there be anything anyone remembers about me, or what I did, or what I said? What am I doing that will make a difference to someone in 40 years?