Angels must traverse airports in human form. Over 20 years ago, my roommate and—unknown to me at that time—future husband bought a plane ticket so I could visit a friend in Denver at Christmas. I was living hand to mouth as a college student in Toledo, working three jobs for rent and tuition and never could have afforded to pay for the trip myself.
After a wonderful week visiting Denver, I arrived back at the airport in plenty of time to return home. After we boarded the plane, a huge snowstorm rolled in while we were waiting for takeoff and we were promptly herded back up the jetway. Poor and naive, I had traveled across the country with no credit cards—there were no such things as debit cards then—and I had literally one very thin dime in my pocket.
Over the next three days, I slept on chairs and the floor of the airport. The one granola bar in my backpack lasted a day. Periodically, we passengers would line up to ask the airline’s staff about the possibilities of flying out. They issued me new tickets about six times. If the snow cleared, their thinking went, we would be ready to board.
Standing in line again on the second day, I struck up a conversation with a middle-age woman, who told me she was on her way home to Monterey, Calif. She must have figured out that I had no money and handed me $20 for food. I told her that I couldn’t take money from a stranger—even as my stomach growled—but she insisted otherwise. If her daughter were stuck in an airport far from home, she said, she hoped someone would help. The woman advised that when I could afford to, I should help people as she had helped me.
I looked down at the money in my hand, and looked up again. She was gone. She couldn’t have simply slipped away; the airport passengers were in solid lines. I looked everywhere for her, all day, in the airport. But she was simply gone.
That woman changed my life. For 22 years, every year at Christmas, I thought about that woman and wished I could find her and pay her back.
But I do pay her back. I overtip good waitresses and hand $10 bills to homeless men. I serve coffee to picketing union men, buy mittens for children and send gift cards to poor college kids. And every time I do, I thank that woman, every single time. She has no idea that her $20 gift has kept on giving for two decades and will continue to live on until my last day.
The AARP Bulletin’s What I Really Know column comes from our readers. Each month we solicit personal essays on a selected topic and post some of our favorites in print and online. Karen E. Wood is a reader from Bowling Green, Ohio.