The year was 1950, and Italy was rebuilding after the Second World War. In the small working-class city of Mestre, a girl was growing up. Like much of Italy, Mestre had its share of American soldiers. They came with money to spend in their caffes, and they brought gifts: candy for the children, and silk stockings for the ladies. She had received some of each over the years, and while the young soldiers would often ask for a dance or an evening of conversation, they never demanded anything she was unwilling to give. Perhaps it was an order from their commanding officer that held them back, or perhaps it was simply a difference in culture, but these young men seemed almost shy when they were around her.
Fifty years later, the girl had become an old woman. She had married and raised children, who in turn married and had children of their own. Finally her husband died, and she was alone again.
One day while returning from the market, she stepped aboard the bus to return home. The bus was full, as it always was that time of day, but a young man rose upon seeing her and motioned for her to take his seat. Once he saw her seated, the young man lifted his gaze to stare out the window at the passing shops. The man seemed so peculiar, both in appearance and behavior.
Sitting there, it all came back–the soldiers after the war, and how they had treated her family. She looked up at the young man, his hair tousled, his clothing so different from what the other young men in town were wearing.
“American?” she asked.
“Yes,” he replied, and blushed. She gave the man a gentle smile, and he looked off into the distance again.
Unlike most of my personal stories, the background on this one is mostly fabricated, but I was that man. Somewhere in history an American soldier was kind to a local girl in post-war Italy, and I have reaped the gratitude he deserved.
It makes me wonder what kindness I can do that someone else may win that gentle smile.