There was just something about her.
The woman behind the Handy Mart counter had worried eyes and a tired smile. I suspected the reason her smile was exhausted had nothing to do with using it all the time. It was just tired of lying.
It was 6:40 a.m. in the quiet convenience store and I’d just dropped off my daughter at early-morning church seminary. I’d planned to buy a newspaper and enjoy a donut and juice before returning to pick her up at 7:30 for the ride to school. And, because I’m a serial talker, I’d hoped to chat with whomever might be working or simply passing through the combination gas station and Dunkin' Donuts.
I paid for my breakfast and decided to try to pry a smile with a joke that was outrageously funny in my head, but in the real world? Not so much. The clerk, Cheri Romick, grinned anyway, wished me a good day and returned to her routine.
I went back a couple times a week for several months and was met with the same polite but disconnected smiles and the obligatory, “Thank you,” and, “Come again.” No matter the hour and whether I was alone or with my crazy kids, her mood never seemed to change.
One morning, after a long trial and after examining the evidence, I appointed myself judge and issued a verdict. “She’s just not very friendly,” I decided. “Plus, she’s grumpy and definitely not a morning person. Oh, and she probably hates her job, too.”
And so, with judgment in hand, I moved on.
Though I’d given up on Romick, by then I’d become friends with the other employees and continued visiting the store. The others were kind, engaging and funny, and despite the occasional presence of their perpetually miserable coworker, I enjoyed stopping by.
Then one morning as I filled a fountain drink, the manager came over to say hello and to wipe down a nearby counter. I sidled up next to her and, noticing that Romick apparently had the day off, finally addressed my curiosity. “So, tell me about Cheri? She sure doesn’t seem very happy. What’s her deal? She’s never been very friendly.”
The manager lowered her eyes and put her hand on my arm. “You don’t know?”
“I guess not,” I thought, and the lump in my throat quickly became a pit in my stomach.
“She’s had a really hard year,” she said softly. “Both her parents just died. She was living with and caring for them. She lived with them her whole life.”
My breakfast didn’t taste very good that morning.
A few days later, I returned and spent a little more time than usual at the counter. I asked some casual questions and for the first time ever, I saw her.
I really saw her.
The once grumpy, grouchy and unfriendly clerk was gone. In her place stood a daughter of God who’d been tested and challenged in ways she’d never imagined.
Cheri Lynn Romick and her parents moved into the house she still calls home more than 30 years ago. She never married, did not have children and made caring for her parents her top priority. They had a lawn and garden business that kept them side-by-side and as tight as family can be. When her mother, Lucy Romick, began struggling with health problems in 2010, they closed the business and turned their attention even more to what matters most.
On Saturday, Jan. 29, 2011, her mother fell and fractured her pelvis. Three days later, Cheri and her father put Lucy to bed. When they checked on her the next morning, she was gone.
I asked Cheri, now a good friend and one of the kindest people I know, what she remembers about that moment. “To this day I can see my daddy standing in their bedroom asking me, ‘What are we gonna do without her?’ ”
Yes, while I was worrying about why she didn’t think my jokes were funny, she was worrying about life without her mother.
Five months later, her father, Harry, had a stroke and was transported by medical helicopter for emergency surgery. He never saw his home again; he died in November.
In nine months, the woman I judged as unfriendly, grumpy and grouchy buried the two people she loved most in this world and was left alone in the house that raised her.
Today, Romick savors every moment. “Jason, I’ve learned that life is too short to worry about stupid things. You just never know when your last day will come.”
I love my trips to the local Handy Mart more than ever. No, it’s not the only convenience store in town, but it’s the one where I am reminded that the person behind the counter, or on the street, or on the other end of the phone doesn’t need to be analyzed or judged. They need to be seen.
Because there's just something about them.
Jason Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars" and "The Wednesday Letters." Learn more at jasonfwright.com, or connect on Facebook at facebook.com/jfwbooks or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.