Thursday, March 28, 2013

What Goes Around

The coolest thing happened today. 
The mail carrier brought me a letter with a sizeable check in it, one I hadn't expected to receive.

It was from a young doctor, just beginning her practice. I met her at an art show sometime last year, where she had been attracted to a particular print. A big one. An expensive one, by most peoples’ standards.

There was no way she could pay for it. With an entry-level position in a small primary care clinic, she was overworked, underpaid, and barely able to keep up with loans and living expenses. It would be a long time before she could afford such an extravagance as this drawing, even a reproduction.

The hand-written letter made me think of my grandparents, who suffered, as did everyone during the Great Depression, and didn't have much in the way of luxuries.

“These are the coolest dishes, Grandma,” I told her one day. I was a reluctant ten-year-old, standing next to her at the kitchen sink, helping her dry the plates. Helping was one of the things you did at my grandparents’ house. “They look really old.”

“They’re a whole lot older than you are, my boy,” she replied. “By a fur piece!” The glazed stoneware dinner platters were heavy in my hands as I reached up to put them away, one by one, in the cabinet. I knew they were precious, since we used them only for special family occasions. I assumed they were very expensive.

“I’ll bet you can’t guess where they came from,” she said. I shook my head. Some rich person’s house, I imagined, and said as much.

“Not hardly!” she laughed. “We saved those back in the 1940’s. They came free if you bought a particular brand of laundry soap. They’re just like those iced tea tumblers there, that came from oatmeal boxes, or the juice glasses that used to be jelly jars.”

The jelly jars made sense to me, but I couldn't imagine getting dishes in a box of laundry detergent. “Why did they do that? Put dishes in laundry soap, I mean?”

“It’s just a premium, like finding a toy in your cereal box. It might keep you buying one brand of product over another, if the price was nearly the same. Just a little something extra to keep you as a loyal customer.”

This approach to customer loyalty was not universally accepted in our family. My father, the quintessential business administrator, once saw me slip an extra print into a customer’s bag.

“They didn't pay for that one, did they?” he correctly observed – fortunately after the customer had already gone.

“No, sir. They didn't.”

“Then why did you give it to her? You can't make any money handing out your merchandise for free. You’ll wind up giving away the store!”

He was exaggerating, of course. It was one of his favorite ways of hammering home a point, when an actual hammer wasn’t readily available.

“This is a long-time customer,” I told him. “She has purchased DS Art prints for years, for her kids, her friends, for much of her extended family. But she never has taken one home for herself.” I explained to him that every time she stopped to see me at an art show, or came by to visit the studio, she would pick up a print of my Hummingbird drawing, look it over, and quietly put it back. “It was time she had a picture of her own.”

I knew I could expect a worried phone call later that day, my customer apologizing for walking out with a print she hadn’t paid for – or a sincere Thank-You note in tomorrow’s mail. Or both.


The young doctor came back several times that day to look at the print. On her last visit, I put it in a bag and handed it to her.

“Oh, I couldn’t!” she began, insisting that she wait until her fortunes had a chance to improve. She would order the picture from me later.

“Nonsense,” I insisted. “Take it home today. Send me a check whenever you can.”

At Christmastime she sent me a handwritten card, with a folded $20 bill inside. Things had not gotten better for her since we met at the art show. The clinic had closed, and she was looking for a job. “But I wanted you to have something for trusting me,” her note said.

I put the twenty in a new envelope, and sent it right back to her. It was Christmas, after all. She needed the money more than I did.

Which is why it was so good to see her letter in today’s mail. “You entrusted me with a lot,” she wrote, “and I will forever be grateful.”

Her postscript would have pleased even my father, the businessman:

“PS: I will eventually own all of your medical pieces. My office will be a gallery for your work.”

When that happens, it will be my turn to write a Thank-You note.

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