Faith in people

By The Columbia Chronicle

by Anne Marie Mitchell

I’ve always put my faith, for better or worse, in people. Think of me as a people person. I talk to the people standing next to me in line or on a plane. I’ve always put my trust in the sound character of perfect strangers. Why do I do this? I chalk it up to the influence of my grandma, Mary Dumas.

At age 19, Mary met my papa,  Al, as he was getting off a bus in West Haverstraw, N.Y.  She sashayed up to him with a cigarette dangling daintily between her fingers and offered up a line like, “Hey tall,  handsome stranger, wanna elope?”

Soon after, they did. Their union launched the lives of two innocent boys who would be subject to an often unstable upbringing, peppered with the alcoholic rants of their father. Unfortunately my Papa Al died in his mid-40s from a gunshot wound during a robbery, after finally getting clean and sober.

After a short-lived second marriage to a cook who turned out to be a bigamist, grandma opened up her ranch home in Valparaiso, Ind., to transients passing through. Her home became home to anyone needing a room for a few weeks or months. I’m fairly sure her background checks included the production of some form of identification (library cards were OK) and a $20 deposit (although an IOU was perfectly acceptable).

I remember dozens of truck drivers, waitresses, mechanics and roustabouts who took a room at grandma’s house.

When I went for a sleepover, I never knew who would be there until morning, when the boarders would gather around the kitchen counter, eating eggs fried in bacon grease and drinking endless cups of syrupy coffee. Grandma never offered unwanted advice; she only listened to their stories, laughed at their jokes and offered a little comfort in a world that I didn’t think offered much.

Things didn’t always work out for Grandma, like the second husband who turned out to be a liar and a cheat. But I think my grandma’s life was interesting, largely due to her faith in people.

In parallel, my life has taken interesting turns as I’ve opened my mind and heart to the strangers that surround me. I recall at age 18, waiting on the tarmac in LaGuardia to board a plane to Madrid, where I would spend my junior year abroad.  I began speaking with a Spanish family that had been vacationing in New York.  After one hour of waiting and talking, we boarded the plane and the mom handed me their telephone number. I didn’t call for a few months, but finally did just to say “hello. “ After accepting an invitation to dinner, we became friends. I eventually lived with them for a while. Years later, their daughter lived with me for a summer and her parents, Donna and José Miguel, have also been to Chicago to visit. I consider the Sierras my second family. Thanks for including me in your family, Donna.

And there’s the time I spoke with the group of deep-sea explorers as we were boarding a boat in Portsmouth, Va.  That hour-long conversation led to an interview that secured my job with the Columbia America Discovery Group, where I led marketing efforts for an ocean shipwreck recovery group. That was one of the most exciting times in my career (you can read about our adventure in the bestseller by Gary Kinder, “Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea”).  Thanks for believing in me, Tommy.

One of my most life-changing moments was when I sat on a plane to New York next to an Indian man who was watching lovely videos of his children, a boy and a girl, in Indian costume, dancing and enjoying birthday celebrations at home. I assumed he was a consultant on the road, missing his children. I commented on how beautiful his children are. He thanked me and said, “Yes they were so beautiful.” “Were?” I asked, hesitantly.  “Yes, my wife set them and herself on fire and they all died.” Tears welled up as I told him how sorry I was. In fact, I’d followed this story on the news. It happened in Naperville, only a few months prior. He shared how a renewed commitment to his faith has helped him get out of bed each day. Thanks for sharing your secret to go on living while in deepest despair, Anand.

When my son was 3, I was pushing him in a stroller down the sidewalk in front of my house.  As we passed a woman and her stroller, my son got wildly excited. He said “Mommy, mommy, this is my friend, Patrick, and his mommy.” He must have met them at the park with his nanny one day when I was not there.  My 3-year-old son was making introductions.

The spirit of Mary Dumas lives on.