Noelle Sterne was just making a weekly stop at the bank, making her regular deposits and withdrawals, when she heard a horrible wail beside her.
She’d just stepped to a counter beside a teller’s window to organize her paperwork, and saw that the woman at the window had handed over a withdrawal slip only to be denied. The teller told her the account was overdrawn, and she couldn’t give her the cash.
Sterne wasn’t the only person staring. At the sound of the “anguished cry, several customers turned to see where it came from.”
The woman was dressed respectably in old clothes, she had dark hair, and she was small in stature. Her hand went to her mouth, her voice broken, and Sterne heard her wail in a thick accent, “What am I going to do?”
“The words reverberated through me, triggering a discomfiting memory,” Sterne recounted in a story submitted to Chicken Soup for the Soul.
Only in the recent past, Sterne, who now had a well-paying job, had been living paycheck to paycheck like this woman must have. She was constantly weighing the numbers, plagued with thoughts like “How would I meet the coming month’s rent? How would I have enough for food? How soon would the electricity be cut off?”
“Without thinking, I did something I never did before or since,” Sterne recalled. She then reached into the cash envelope she just received and took out a hundred-dollar bill, handing it to the woman.
The woman’s first response was disbelief, then suspicion. “Que?” she asked.
Sterne smiled, and held the bill out to her. “Please,” she said.
The woman began to tear up, and the crowd of onlookers was drawing closer in. “People in the line stared and murmured,” Sterne remembered. Some shook their heads, some laughed. “One man said loudly, ‘Hey, as long as you’re giving it out…'”
Sterne didn’t let that interfere with what she was trying to offer the woman.
“Please, take it,” she said again. The woman started to speak again, and for a moment it seemed she would refuse, so Sterne again insisted, and she took the money.
“Madre de Dios, bless you!” she said, giving Sterne a hug. Sterne remembered “her face glowing as if she’d seen a saint.” The woman kept glancing back at her, still crying, as she made her way out the bank.
Others kept staring, too, but Sterne wrote she “kept my eyes down, wanting to cherish the moment.”
Sterne said it might sound disappointing that nothing miraculous happened to her after the fact—she didn’t receive a surprise check in the mail or an inheritance from a long-lost cousin the next day.
“But what I gained was much more important,” she wrote. “I carry the image of the woman’s face and hear her blessing. We never even exchanged names, but the memory continues to warm me.”
“I never missed the money, but I felt certain it met the woman’s immediate urgent need,” Sterne said. The act came from a place of profound empathy, she reflected, a need to respond to another’s complete dismay. She had been there. This woman didn’t have to.
“Now, every time I am tempted to get sucked into that money-worry vortex, I remember this experience,” she wrote.
“She gave me a precious lesson: Just as she was provided for, so, if ever needed, will I be,” Sterne wrote. “Whatever we are impelled to give—whether it is money, a smile, a hand, a suggestion, or a few minutes of undivided attention—we should.”
“Yes, the receiver gains what is needed. But as givers, we gain incalculably from the spontaneous acts of kindness from the heart.”