Alice

Burbank, California; February,2003;
Joan Marques, MBA, Doctoral Student

As I was lifting up my thumb to show my colleague that the potential sponsor on the other side had just agreed to support our project, I heard a gentle knock at the office window. It was a beautiful sunny day and our workplace was easily accessible from the street.

From the corner of my eyes I saw her: an old lady with scruffy gray hair and a worn out dress of which the colors were hard to distinguish. "It's the old orange lady again," Carla, my colleague, whispered to nobody in particular. She made a gesture to one of the office clerks to send the old woman away. But it was right there and then that something caught my unbridled attention: A clear, gentle voice was asking in a very tender way if we really didnít want to try her delicious oranges. My call was finished: the client was in for the deal, so I got up. That voice... Could it be? I stared at the window to catch a glimpse of the lady. Who was I fooling? There she was: Alice. I could not believe my eyes. I swallowed, and swallowed again. Alice...

20 years ago she was the housekeeper from a neighboring Dutch family that was sent over on a contract. She was a very religious woman and always had a consoling word ready if you skinned your knee or bumped your head. Her hands were soothing, her kiss on your forehead was comforting, her hug was gentle, and her voice was, well, like only Aliceís voice could be: clear, gentle, consoling. She was everybody's mother.

Alice stayed the mom of all the kids in the neighborhood until the contract of the Dutch family ended and the economical situation of the country excluded the possibility of an extension. I never saw her again, and, to be honest, had forgotten about her in the course of 20 years. But hearing her voice now was the most overwhelming experience I could imagine.

Life had not treated Alice well, I could tell. A woman in her seventies, she was vending oranges and other fruit in the streets. Her slippers were worn out, as was she. For one single moment I dubbed: should I let them send her away and stay in my comfortable office--she had not seen me, and probably wouldn't recognize me anyway--or should I go out and say hi?

The moment of doubt was soon over: I almost ran to the door and said, "Hello Alice." She looked at me and smiled broadly. "You remember me?" she asked. I was speechless. "Do YOU remember me?" I asked in return. She laughed out loud now: The so familiar, crystal clear sound of her contented motherly laugh. "Of course I do. I've been seeing you drive into this driveway for the past months. How is your mother, dear?"

That's when I realized a few important things: 1) Never assume that people you knew in the past won't remember you, and 2) Never forget the good things others did to you. Alice did remember me, but she didn't dare approaching me from her humble position: she felt as if she was on her way down from life's ladder of esteem, and I was on my way up at that moment. What she overlooked was that I had not forgotten the compassionate lessons she taught me long ago.

I took a few oranges out of Alice's basket--as I knew that her self-respect would not let me just give her money without "buying" something--and I paid her an amount that represented a significant multiplication of the value of the products I bought. I also told her that she could stop by every time she was in the neighborhood to sell me some fruit, which she did from then on.

Alice didn't only acquire me as a generous customer from that day on, but all my colleagues as well, for I made sure to tell them about Alice's bighearted personality way back when.

My confrontation with this old lady from my past pointed up to me how good it is to keep in mind that many of the people we see performing in modest positions are Alices to others. It also made me realize that humility is no crime or shame: Alice earned her daily bread in an honest and respectable way. And her good heart allowed her to generate more from her work--financially and emotionally--than she initially expected. Goodness seldom goes unrecognized...