CHAPTER II: It's All About Dignity

Where does your Dignity live? Mine is a wandering nomad.

It certainly lives in my heart. Its force helped me stand tall and proud, carrying me through many a difficult moment.

What does your Dignity look like? Mine used to look like a plan. An upcoming trip. A child’s birthday. Learning a new skill, a new piano piece, a new city. Before cancer, I was a master planner. I liked to be in control. Then I had to learn not to plan—there was no way to tell how I would feel from one hour to the next. No yesterday, no tomorrow. I still get lost sometimes between what was and what might be. But I'm a lot better in valuing every moment. After all, there is only today.

It’s a delicate thing, Dignity. It’s as fleeting as the morning dew. One moment it’s there, holding you in its arms, next it disappears into the night, leaving you exposed, raw, and vulnerable.

When people let you into their lives, you will often discover the thread of their Dignity. Or someone might may discover yours and you end up with a very special gift. Here is one story with Dignity at its core. 

Story: The Gentlest Lesson

Deed: Write a story about first meeting in London 30 years ago

Recipient: Allana B., Suffolk, United Kingdom

He was tall, distinguished, and soft-spoken. She was gregarious and lively, with expressive, turquoise blue eyes that always seemed to smile. They walked into the restaurant one Saturday evening in the summer of 1984. Slatters was a small, intimate place in London’s Haymarket; it mostly catered to late night eaters and theatre goers. Groups of well dressed, carefully coiffed, expensively fragranced people would stop in for an early dinner or a leisurely evening drink.

I was working a summer job as a waitress, but my job skills were laughable. For one, my English was limited, so I went through agony every time a customer ordered a meal—I was worried I would not understand. As I scrambled to decode every word, I would often forget who ordered which dish. But the worst thing was when somebody asked for details about a menu item—what it was, how it was made, or what were the ingredients: I would either say something silly, or freeze and walk away for fear of being embarrassed.

With this couple though, I felt immediately at ease. They seemed to understand my accented English. I had no trouble following the gentleman’s impeccable discourse, and the lady’s perfectly rolled r’s.

I brought out their appetizers: chilled carrot-orange cream soup, and prawn cocktail with avocado. Throughout the meal, we continued the conversation—about my University, what it was like to live in Communist Poland, and what I was hoping to see during my three months in London. To my amazement, they seemed interested in…me.

Ron and Allana, 1985

Ron and Allana, 1985

Every once in a while, pearly, musical laughter echoed into the restaurant from their table in the corner. They were having a great time talking, trading jokes, understanding each other unlike most people I knew. They shared that unmistakable look—meaningful, warm, and intimate. His was tender, deep and mature; hers—youthful, adoring, and happy.

They finished their meal and we said our goodbyes. On the way out, the woman handed me a piece of paper. “We would love to meet with you again and show you around London," she said. "Please give us a ring and we’ll find a time that suits you.” The blue eyes looking at me were very sincere. I was touched, perhaps a little surprised, as the worlds from which we came were very far apart. Also, I was afraid. Socializing with “Westerners” could possibly lead to prosecution, or at least uncomfortable questioning. What if I’m somehow found out by the Communists? Maybe they would deport me? Go after my family? Think I was a spy? Big Brother was watching. I had a lot to think about.

Two days later, Slatters thanked me for my service after I told a customer that Beef Wellington consisted of “stripes of beef”, and Zabaglione was a “delicious whipped eye.” My career as a waitress lasted all of four days. I soon found another job—this time as a cashier—at Reubens, a kosher Jewish restaurant on Baker Street, owned and managed by a very unsophisticated Egyptian. A week or two have passed. I settled into a new routine, working 6 days a week, off on Saturdays. Slatters was beginning to feel like a distant memory. Once in a while, I would open the small piece of paper and look at the hand-written note inside:

  • Allana McLeod and Ron Baxter
  • 020 8556 0040
  • Castelnau Mansions, London-Hammersmith

I do not recall the exact moment when I decided to give it a try, nor what ultimately prompted me to do it, but I know it had a lot to do with those sincere blue eyes.  So one afternoon, with the note in my hand and a fluttering heart, I dialed the long sequence of digits and waited for a reply. A bouncy-sounding voice—Allana—was happy to hear from me. We chatted for a few minutes, and before I knew it, I got invited to their place in Hammersmith the following Saturday afternoon for a “small friendly meal.”

Next Saturday rolled around and it was time to prepare. A student on a very tight budget, I didn’t own many presentable clothes for such an occasion. I had to settle for a simple cotton shirt and a well-loved skirt, hoping nobody would notice that it had a hole. Calming my nerves as best as I could, I rang the front buzzer and went into the building. I was ushered into a beautiful, spacious flat, and welcomed by its owners. As the front door closed behind me, I stepped into a different realm—a world of beauty, color, happiness and abundance, thousands of miles away from the communist grayness to which I was accustomed.

A drink in hand, with Allana by my side, I was trying to make conversation with a few guests who gathered around me. I suspect I was a curious, live exhibit from the world none of them had seen, yet nobody made me feel that way; the company was joyful, interested, and cordial. I felt fairly relaxed by the time we were invited to sit at the lunch table. Ron showed me my spot and helped me settle in.

When you don’t own much, dignity may be all you have

Plates of food started to arrive: melon with parma ham, fresh rolls with butter, soup, delicate meats, seasonal vegetables, an array of desserts, each course accompanied by excellent wines. I waited for everyone to be served, looked at my table setting and…froze. Three or four spoons of different sizes, three knives, three forks, several plates stacked together and one or two on the side, surrounded by two wine glasses, a few others for something else—and me in this great company, not having the slightest idea what to do with all that! I began to feel dizzy, anxious, completely overwhelmed. Within seconds, panic started to set in—the knives, forks and the rest of the cutlery were dancing in front of me to the music of deep embarrassment. For a moment, I seriously considered getting up and simply running away.

While I was pathetically weighing my exit options, I received a beautiful and unexpected gift. With the most subtle, delicate, and discreet friendly gesture, Ron pointed to my bread plate and the butter knife. Then, with the same ever-so-soft touch, he helped me position the food on the correct plate. He poured water into one of the glasses, and handed it to me with a reassuring smile. Next he guided me through the wine, more food, knives and forks, and a full setting for desserts. All of this was performed without a single word. He knew and I knew, a secret and tacit pact between two very different people from the opposite sides of the Iron Curtain.

For the rest of my stay that summer, Allana and Ron took wonderful care of me—thanks to them, I heard some fantastic music at the Royal Albert Hall, went on a boat ride on the Thames, enjoyed several walks in places I would otherwise never see. Each time after our get together—no matter what time it was—they would drive me “home” to the run-down, shady-looking area in South London, where I was renting a tiny attic room for £5 a week.

With Allana, London, 2014

With Allana, London, 2014

Our friendship has continued for over three decades now. Since then, I have moved to America, both of us started families and raised beautiful children, had our share of successes and some disappointments, watched our hair turn more silver with each passing year. I have had many occasions to dine in elegant settings, among important people, and enjoy exquisite meals all over the world.

Back then in London, I might have been a modest 21-year-old with little social practice, but I certainly had my pride. When you don’t own much, dignity may be all you have. I’m grateful to Ron for his gentlest lesson, and for recognizing that dignity was the only possession of mine at the time. 

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