[dropcap]A[/dropcap] few days ago I went to my local big box home improvement store to buy a new welcome mat. My old one had worn out its welcome and the snow storm had delivered the final blow. I was amazed by the variety and selection. There were all different shapes and sizes, textures and patterns and slogans. I finally found one that was just perfect for me. It had a good scratchy surface, a simple welcome in the middle, and best of all, a lovely Cardinal perched on a snowy, berry laden branch. I love Cardinals. This would be just right for my winter welcome mat! But there were a few others that caught my attention. One said Unwelcome. Another, No. A third said Enter At Your Own Risk. And yet another, Under No Circumstances. I realized that for some people this was all just good fun. But it got me to thinking.
Why do most of us have a welcome mat? And what about a welcome is so important? We say a good host makes everyone feel welcome. Some people are said to have a welcoming smile. And we love to give heroes welcome home parades. But lately, I seem to find welcomes few and far between.
It is hard to be the “new kid on the block” or more appropriately the lonely adult in search of a welcoming place. I suspect many of us have found ourselves in this position at one time or another. It may be a move, divorce, estrangement, or death that has us looking for the proverbial “soft place to fall”. For me, it was an unexpected retirement. I loved my job. I worked with a wonderful diverse group of people, in challenging situations and got to do a good bit of traveling internationally. I planned to work until I could no longer. But the recession had other plans for me. And so, at age 65, I found myself out of work, without purpose, bored, and desperately lonely. My calendar displayed days on end without any events. Sometimes my only human interaction was with someone standing in line with me at the supermarket. And since I have no family, the lack of intimacy was overwhelming. Cleaning out my closets, rearranging furniture, and exercising was not the answer. Volunteering did not fill the void. I floundered for several months.
Desperate to make a successful transition to this new stage in my life, I began a Google search to find places to meet people and interesting things to do. One seemed particularly promising. The local JCC. It had an extensive Lifelong Learning program, with many wonderful classes and special events. Choosing one,a seminar on the Impressionists that that also included a bagel breakfast, I eagerly enrolled.
I found it strange that I was a bit anxious. I even took extra care with my hair and outfit, wanting to make a good impression. Like a little kid on her first day of school. And off I went.
The building is really large, two stories stretching out across what seems like an enormous piece of property. I entered the lobby and found myself totally lost. There were no signs indicating rooms or events, and the reception desk had a long line and a lone woman with telephones ringing. There were a number of people heading off in a particular direction, so I decided to ask someone where my program was located. They indicated I could just follow the crowd. I came to a desk with name tags, found mine, and entered a room with circular tables that seated eight and a sumptuous breakfast buffet. With no particular place to sit, and no one I knew, I began to look for a vacant chair. No easy task. (I learned later that these events are so popular they sell out, and friends come early to join their group at the same table). I finally found one, smiled, and asked the woman nearest me if I could join them. “This seat is saved” she said, and turned her attention back to her group. Spying what appeared to be two vacant chairs nearby, I made my approach and the same request. This time, the woman hastily moved her purse to cover the seats and told me they were taken. It was obvious the program was about to begin, and it might be standing room only! But as luck would have it, there was one more chance. Way in the back, an empty seat. This time my request was granted. I looked about, smiled, and said, “Hi, my name is Carole. It’s my first time here. It certainly is popular”. My new neighbor replied “I’m Joan”. Nothing more. And no one else spoke. Getting up to go to the buffet, I asked if anyone would like me to bring them something. They declined. The seminar was wonderful. The interaction with my table mates, non-existent.
I went home, questioned my social skills, and decided to give it another try. This time it was a musical program, dessert and coffee included. I arrived earlier, found the room, and began the now familiar empty chair search. The results? Not much different! Finally, a volunteer seeing me unseated, asked if I needed help. She proceeded to grab an unused chair and moved it to an already full table. Smiling, she said “ this lady would love to sit with you”. Everyone rearranged themselves as I made my introduction. I made sure to thank them for making room for me. Three of the women told me their names, one nodded and smiled, and the others ignored me. I asked if they came to the JCC regularly, and the smiler told me they were all members and had been coming together for many years. The program began. It was excellent. As we were getting ready to leave, I said “I hope to see you all again”. “We are here all the time, so you probably will”, one responded. And so the day ended.
Okay! This is not working well! My brain is happy, my heart not so much. Should I bother going back? Or just begin a Google search for another place? But all the different programs called to me. I would give it one more try. This time the life and times of a famous movie star, lunch included. I resolved to be a bit more assertive, without being pushy. Found a table with only five already seated, smiled, and just sat down. No permission requested. Introduced myself. A woman smiled and said “I’m Sandy”. She then proceeded to introduce the other four. We talked about movies. We talked about the film star. They asked where I lived. I told them I was new. They told me about all the wonderful things they did at the JCC. It was amazing! And fun! And there was warmth and laughter! And at the end of that afternoon Sandy asked if I would like to exchange phone numbers and email addresses. Perhaps, she said, we could meet up the next time and sit together again.They had put out the Welcome Mat!
A few days later, phone calls were made. And plans to get together for lunch. A week later, we all went to a movie. And then, since a new semester at the JCC was beginning, we talked about what classes we wanted to take. As it turned out, we had many interests in common. And so began a wonderful new phase of my life.
The rest, as they say, is history. I have spent several years with this terrific group of women, as well as some others who have joined us. We have shared all kinds of activities. Three of us even took a recent girls week away trip to Savannah, which proved to be quite an adventure (three women, two beds, one bathroom).
And I think I have answered my question: what about a welcome is so important? It means that someone has acknowledged me. I am not invisible! It does not mean that we will be lifelong friends, or even that we have much in common. Although if I am lucky, that may be the result. It does mean that someone has cared enough to spend a few moments making me feel comfortable in a strange place, chatting with me a bit, perhaps showing me around and introducing me to others. And that turns a lonely day into a lovely day!
So I have resolved to keep my Welcome Mat out. Not every place or all the time of course. The world is sometimes dangerous. But where it seems safe to do so and appropriate, I will. Because I remember vividly how it felt to be a stranger. And because I never know what interesting, funny, wonderful person may see my Welcome Mat and cross the threshold!
Carole Leskin is a retired Director of Global Human Resources. Embarking on a second career as a writer and photographer concentrating on her personal accounts of aging, her essays and poetry, frequently accompanied by her photos, are published in Jewish Sacred Aging, Jewish Women of Words, Starts At 60, Navigating Aging ( a Kaiser Health publication), Women’s Older Wisdom, Time Goes By and Next Avenue. Her poems, “Father Time” and “Carole’s Debate” were selected for inclusion in the 2019 anthologies of poetry, New Jersey Bards. Her photos have been featured in Mart R Porter Nature Forum.