The man kept walking by our tent at the Frederick Fair, usually at a leisurely pace. His wife Susie was bubbly, friendly and talkative. But Jim often passed with his eyes to the ground, pushing a dolly loaded down with sugar or ice. When he did stop to say hello, it was in a melancholy tone.
He and his wife operated a kettle corn stand just up the midway from us – the best kettle corn I’d ever had. They also made a mean shaved ice. As the years passed I found myself enjoying Susie’s company, but around Jim I felt uneasy. He always seemed a little distant or removed.
Do you know someone like this? Someone who doesn’t respond in a way that makes you feel comfortable? Do you give them the benefit of the doubt, or do you make snap judgments on their character based solely on surface level interaction?
I’m terrible at this.
That person’s not nice – they rarely say hello.
Don’t they like me? Hmmm. Maybe I should just try to avoid them.
As our years passed at the Frederick Fair, we got to know Jim and Susie better and better. Frederick Fair is a funny place – you don’t see folks all year, but when you all come back in September, everyone feels like old friends.
Then, one year, I found out that Jim’s daughter had been murdered years before, in the fall of 2002, just after the fair.
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle – Plato
One year ago Jim was kind enough to come over and buy one of my books, Think No Evil. The story of the Nickel Mines Amish shooting. We talked for a long time about his daughter, how he felt about it, how he dealt with it. Last winter Jim and Susie took me into their home in Florida, where Susie stuffed me with all kinds of delicious food and Jim was generous enough to tell me the story of his daughter Jeni. We’re working on including it in another book on the topic of forgiveness.
When you talk to someone about the most difficult things they’ve been through in life, friendship comes so much easier.
Fast forward to this year at the fair. Jim and Susie still ran their kettle corn / shave ice stand across from us. Each night as we closed up our respective tents we’d chat about how business was, how ridiculous the heat wave, how glad we were that another day at the fair was over. Then, on Saturday night, the final night of the fair, I walked over to say good-bye, at least for another year.
“You know,” Susie said, her eyes filling with tears for a split second, “tomorrow it’ll be 8 years since Jeni…” her voice trailed off.
Jim cleared his throat, and one of his classic smiles, filled with a little sadness, eased on to his face.
“You just gotta keep driving,” he said, looking at me, then at the ground (you’ll have to read the book to understand the significance of that phrase).
The three of us stood there quietly for a moment. A cool breeze swept through what had been an otherwise hot week. We hugged, chatted a little more, hugged again.
There are unlikely friendships waiting for you, if you will only stop long enough to hear the story.
A huge thanks to Jim and Susie, for their willingness to include me and my family in their story – if you guys are reading today, the entire Smucker family loves and appreciates you a lot. As for our rallying cry…next year in Frederick!