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Lessons Learned from the “Water Heater Lady”

seniorladywithcaregiverIt was an extremely unlikely friendship. She was at least 60 years my senior. We only met once face to face. Still, I consider Virginia one of the dearest friends I’ll ever know.

When I started my radio career nearly 30 years ago, I quickly learned the difference between listeners and fans. Within a year of being on the air, I had a small but growing fan club I would hear from regularly.

Of course, since the music format I was playing consisted of adult standards like Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, and Bobby Vinton, my fans tended to be a bit more mature.

One of my regular callers was an elderly woman that the other disc jockeys had dubbed “the water heater lady.” Whenever she called in to request a song, she would mention that her water heater wasn’t working properly.

Calls from the water heater lady tended to go on for a while and it was difficult sometimes to get her off the phone. She liked to visit.

Over time, I came to realize that her almost nightly calls had less to do with my on-air popularity and more to do with the fact that she was alone. With this realization, I stopped simply tolerating her calls and started to actively listen to her.

Her name was Virginia Henry and I learned that she originally hailed from Missouri and was a widow twice over. She was a huge fan of Ronnie Milsap and every time I played one of his songs she would call to thank me. She loved to laugh. I actually began to look forward to her calls.

I didn’t realize how much our chats meant to her until the night I told her that I would soon be leaving to serve a two-year mission for my church. Her reaction surprised me. Far from being happy with my good news, she became distressed and begged me not to go.

I assured her that that my decision to serve a mission was important to me and I promised to write to her while I was gone. She eventually became so upset that she said, “You can just go to hell!” and slammed the phone down.

I was stunned.

The next night I saw the phone line begin blinking and I answered. A quavering voice asked, “Can you ever forgive me?” I gladly did and from that moment on, Virginia was a staunch supporter of my decision to serve.

About a week before I left, I had the chance to meet her in person. She was a tiny octogenarian with a huge smile and she was overjoyed that I would take the time to say goodbye in person. She wished me the best of luck and I left for Oklahoma.

Over the next two years, she was one of my most reliable correspondents. Every other week I would get a letter from her with either a five-dollar bill or a book of stamps tucked carefully inside. Because of her failing eyesight, her handwriting was shaky and often difficult to read. But she always offered encouragement.

Virginia and I corresponded faithfully for the entire time I was on my mission. As my homecoming drew nearer, I wrote to her and told her how I was looking forward to seeing her again. But with a month to go, I received a letter from my parents with Virginia’s death notice enclosed.

Her family graciously sent me a note thanking me for befriending her and staying in touch while I was away. I don’t imagine it was easy for them to understand the dynamic of the friendship that she and I shared.

There are two important lessons that I learned from this experience. The first is that there are a great many “water heater ladies” among us who live with crushing loneliness. Many are out of sight and therefore out of mind but would be greatly blessed by our friendship.

Someone near you needs your company. Are you willing to seek them out and provide it?

The second lesson is that few things are as precious to individuals who are far from home as a handwritten letter. The postal service gets picked on a lot these days, but few things are sweeter than an actual letter in the mailbox.

Whose spirits might you lift with a bit of personal correspondence?

Never underestimate the power of a little individual kindness.


bryan-hydeBryan Hyde is a husband, father, disciple, teacher, guardian, reader, writer, truth seeker, stirrer of pots, radio talk show host, and PITA to those who seek dominion over others. He’s also a proud member of the Pro-Freedom Conspiracy.

He does professional voice work through his company One Clear Voice. He is also a frequent and popular contributor to St. George News.

Bryan and his wife Becky are raising their six children in Cedar City, Utah.

Subscribe to Bryan’s blog here.

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