March 8, 2013
Whatever I did, I apologize. Flog me, fine me, curse my name. But honest, I didn't mean to do it.
You, too, have probably felt the dismay of discovering you've slighted someone without knowing it. Your victim may be someone you've never met. The slight may go back years. You may make this discovery at the least expected moment.
This happened to me — not for the first time — a few days ago. I'd just finished a talk at a local university when a man approached. He stood patiently while I chatted with a few other people, then he asked if I remembered a column I'd written in which I asked readers to share their fondest memories of time spent on Chicago's lakefront.
He'd responded, he said. And I never answered or wrote about the responses. What happened?
He was nice about it, but I could sense that my failure to respond had stung a little.
All I could say, along with something about the rabbit hole of the email inbox and the way life can impede the best of intentions, was: I'm sorry.
I really was, and I understood how he might feel.
Most of us, I suspect, carry around the memory of some unwitting slight, or several, that nags at us while the perpetrator prances obliviously through life.
Such slights come in many forms. The person who ignores you in the office or at a social event. The unsent condolence card. The unreturned email or call. The clever quip that rips through someone's heart at a party never to be dislodged.
I've been both perpetrator and victim of such unintended slights.
A while back — perpetrator again — I was introduced to a man in a Chicago bar. We exchanged pleasantries before he said, "You once cut me off in the Peninsula Times Tribune parking lot."
The Peninsula Times Tribune was a little newspaper in Palo Alto, Calif., where I had my first journalism job and this man, it turned out, had started at the paper about the time I left.
Two decades later, in Chicago, I was sure I'd never seen him. He had, however, seen me, and had never forgotten my little white Honda Civic behaving badly.
I have my own stash of slights perpetrated upon me.
I can recite word for word the galling things that (co-worker's name deleted) once said to me about (topic deleted.) I feel confident that (same name deleted) not only doesn't remember that conversation but would be astonished to know it remains a burr in my mind.
Friendships, even marriages, can be frayed by such slights.
My mother once told me, in sad surprise, that my father near the end of his life revealed he was still upset by how dismissively she had responded to the roses he sent her shortly after they married. She had remembered the roses, but not the way she had, or hadn't, responded.
The more people you have in your life, the likelier you are to have left a trail of unintended offenses. In these days of Facebook, email and Twitter, when we're connected to the multitudes, the opportunities to offend multiply.
So it feels good when you get the occasion in a friendly way to set things straight.
The man I met the other night emailed afterward and told the story he'd told in that original email, about how as a boy he had watched his father paint an old boat anchored in the Jackson Park lagoon. His father died soon afterward.
He sent me a photo of the watercolor, again, and it was beautiful.
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