How do we measure the impact of another’s kindness on the world?
That is the question I found myself asking on Feb. 9, as I sat beside my paternal grandmother, Dorothy Bess Waddell. Later that afternoon, to the backdrop of fried catfish and her daughter’s familiar southern drawl, my grandmother passed away. She was just three weeks shy of her 102nd birthday.
My grandmother lived through some of the most trying times of the last century. She was born in 1921 near Atlanta in the wake of the Spanish Flu, raised during the Great Depression in rural Arkansas, came of age during WWII, taught primary school during the desegregation of the Jim Crow South and in her final years, watched in awe as fiberoptics leveraged the power of light to interconnect the most remote corners of the earth.
For most, my grandmother was a stranger. To me, she was everything. And now that she is gone, she is a constant reminder of all that is good in the world. Indeed, it is easy to drown in the darkness of humanity. Our history is one of tragedy, warfare and trauma. And yet, our saving grace as a species may well be the contagious effect of kindness on the human soul.
In their 2011 book “Connected,” authors James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis write, “Beyond our own social horizons, friends of friends of friends can start chain reactions that eventually reach us, like waves from distant lands that wash up on our shores.” Goodness, they argue, is infectious. When we benefit from the goodwill of another, we pay it forward, affecting people we love as well as those we’ll never meet.
My grandmother was not a scholar of kindness. But she was most certainly a practitioner of it. As a teacher, she impacted hundreds, if not thousands, of children. But her biggest influence in life might well have been on me, her only grandson. By the time I was born in Telluride in 1982, she had already lived through six decades. And though I did not know it then, she saved the final four for me.
I came into this world in a historic blizzard, but my grandmother was not deterred. Armed with love and a mind full of country recipes, she drove through Arkansas ice storms and waited out weather delays for several days in the old Stapleton Airport. In the meantime, just as the earth reached its maximum tilt away from the sun, I took my first breaths. Several days later, we shared our first moments together.
My grandmother visited often. I immediately renamed her “Dommie,” as my young northern tongue was incapable of pronouncing “Grandmammy” with any fluency. My parents divorced when I was three, and Dommie took me in for several months while they sorted things out. We visited friends, parks, libraries and museums. She also let me watch cartoons, drink soda and lick cake mix from the bowl.
Dommie’s kindness came in many forms and many were edible: black bean soup, cornbread, brisket, chicken casserole and homemade cinnamon rolls. She also never missed a birthday or celebration. And when she thought a news article was important, she’d cut it out and send it to me.
Dommie was also the one who planted the idea of going to college in my mind and she set up a savings account to make sure I could. Whenever I needed her, she was there. And somewhere along the way, without ever saying a word, she convinced me that changing the world begins with the willingness to help others.
It’s a lesson I’ll never forget.
Ben Waddell is an associate professor of sociology at Fort Lewis College and serves on the board of Compañeros, a Durango-based immigration rights nonprofit.