I met Jennie three years ago, on our annual trip to the Oregon seashore. We enjoy the transit of the awe-inspiring Columbia River Gorge so much we usually stop only once, and then not until we reach The Dalles or Hood River. On this occasion the old Cadillac slowed for an exit I hadn’t planned to take. I nonchalantly picked a convenient service station brand as I tried to explain to my passengers that we didn’t really need gas, I just thought we should stop.
Oregon is one of those states where you don’t get to pump your own fuel, so accordingly a young attendant approached my door. I watched her remove the adjacent pump handle as she acknowledged my instructions. Probably no more then 18, her need for lots of dental work was a major “giveaway” for one so young. Despite an eager smile and an obvious will to make a good impression, I could see that she possessed a sweet nature, but was burdened by serious cares. Unless you knew one of my inner- most weaknesses, you would never have guessed that this brief interchange would mark the beginning of a hopeful but sad three-year relationship.
As I pulled our car away from the pump and watched as the girl swirled away on a five-minute break, I said to my family something like, “that kid has big problems; I have to park for a minute.” Inside, I found the station manager, an overworked late middle-age lady who was about to become a special kind of personal friend. After assuring herself that my intentions were sincere, Mary Baker took me aside to talk. “You’re right on,” she said, “when you see the sweetness in that girl, and you are right about her troubles. She is one of these teen-age single mothers who come back to us after running off to California chasing a ‘big new life’.
Getting to know Jenny took the help of Mrs. Baker – one of the few people the girl trusted. Even then I had to learn a lot about the wandering and damaged mind of a long-time meth addict even to survive a five-minute long --distance conversation. My family tried to discourage me from trying to help from the outset, but I couldn’t forget about Bella, the five-year old daughter whose father I would later learn was serving time for murder. If there was one motivator left in Jennie’s bifurcated young life it
was Bella. After a number of moves and changes, “Jen” lost the ability to work
once again along with the use of a borrowed (and illegal) car for commuting. Because of the immense distance between communities in her remote area, employment was problematic at best in her situation.
I tried to regularly send her caring, encouraging personal email messages between phone calls and in return she would tell me the current length of her sobriety. I would occasionally slip a greenback into a greeting card and envelope but remained careful to never let it become an established practice. With the approach of Christmas, I used the opportunity to talk with Jennie by cell phone about the kinds of gifts which would bring joy to her little girl, and then went on a story-book buying hunt. Shortly after that she had a change of address, and her life began what I had to conclude was another downhill slide.
For a long time I listened to the sad “goodbye” signals of an inactive cell phone; a wavering farewell from one of God’s daughters I would have given anything to help. Reaching out is not always painless.
I remain in email-touch with Mary Baker, and stop at the Oregon service station to wish her well each year, but as with me, she too has only a tear and a memory of a sweet young girl we once shared a piece of our hearts with.