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"We have a new member who needs a ride to meetings. Can you take her?" That's how I met Barbara. I was shy, socially awkward and did not make friends quickly. She was educated, well-read, savvy, artistic, a tad eccentric. I was hooked. The first few months, we didn't talk much in the forty-five minute drive to and from our political action meetings. I, self-conscious, felt intimidated. Later, she wouldn't be able to shut me up.
In the meantime, she would volunteer to do the layout for the organization's newsletter, the editing of which was a safe task for me--very little public exposure or public speaking required. She was good at layout. She was good at anything leadership asked her to do. If you've ever worked with volunteers, you know we can be a sketchy bunch. Barbara was always on time, always reliable, and frequently did more than expected without being asked. She saw a need and filled it quietly. She was the volunteer every organizer dreams.
She was passionate about women's rights, human rights, environmental action, art--and she was humble. Unlike so many in the political realm, she never sought the spotlight. Invaluable to the organizations whose work she championed, she gave generously of her skills and experience, her energy and time, and especially her artistic wisdom.
When one after the other our marriages failed, we were there for each other, she more than I, truth be told. Though her life crumbled about her, she was steadfast in her loyalty, comforting me while I floundered in an emotional sea of self-doubt, raw pain and loss. Through her own suffering, she listened quietly to my rants and self-centered caterwauling for hours on end. She always gave me a hug and an "I love you" as we parted.
The last evening I spent with her, we chatted as old friends do through a sumptuous dinner at an indoor/outdoor cafe--new in our town, then sipped vinegary wine at a fundraiser for one of our favorite charities. We capped it with a spontaneous buggy ride through a delicious May evening. Yes, clip-clop, clip-clop. Cerulean blue sky burning golden and cherise, then fading to deep blue, spangled with stars. It was a gorgeous hour of shared contentment with a friend so beloved, words were superfluous in the cool night breeze. Do I remember correctly? Did the heady scent of cottonwoods in bloom fill the balmy air? Or was it a steamy August night, shirts sticking to our skin? Memory, supreme trickster.
How did I lose her? Did I become so self-absorbed I stopped calling her, stopped sending notes? Perhaps she reached a point where her own suffering was such that she could no longer stomach my bellyaching and kvetching when we got together.
A couple of times we made contact again but somehow let it slip, and a few years ago she found me through my family, each of us long since moved to far-flung states. We had out-of-town company the day she called, my birthday it was, and though I wrote down her telephone number and e-mail address, somehow the handy junk-mail envelope I used was lost by the time the company left and I settled down to call her back.
Every word she spoke was true.
Still, despite my incompetent friendship, I think of Barbara fondly and with gladness and gratitude. Every word she spoke was true. Of how many people can you say that? Now, searching the Internet, I find images of her with her grandchild, images of her daughter, easily recognizable after twenty-five years. Perhaps I can reach Barbara through her children and get permission to use her full name here, for she is one of the heroes of my life, and certainly an Ordinary Hero.
Whatever transpired in the thirty-some years since we met and the quarter century since we last saw one another, Barbara exemplifies the love, generosity, compassion and friendship that are typical of the villagers of Ordinary.
For being true to herself, to her friends, to her family, to her country and to people who may never know the love she devoted to their well-being and safety, and for the joy her friendship has been to me over the years, despite our separation, I offer to Barbara E. the Ordinary Heroes Award.
May all who read this know the joy of such a friendship.