One day, a few years ago, I boarded a jetliner in Houston, bound for New York. When I had stowed my carry-on bag and buckled myself in, I looked over to see who I had for a seatmate. I saw a small, elderly lady, sitting straight and prim in her seat, clutching her handbag and trying very hard not to appear concerned. I guessed this lady had not flown often in her life. I leaned over and reminded her gently that she would have to stow her handbag before takeoff.
“Oh, thank you,” she said. “I’m a little nervous, to be quite frank. I’ve never flown before.”
I asked her why she was travelling to New York.
“Well,” she said with a sigh, “I’m going to live with my daughter. She’s meeting me at the airport. You see, my husband of 55 years passed away recently and my daughter doesn’t want me living alone.”
I offered my condolences and, trying to brighten her up, I said she was lucky to have enjoyed such a long marriage.
“Thank you. Yes, I was fortunate. We had a good marriage, and now it seems like the time went by so fast…seems like just yesterday we were saying our vows.” She was quiet for a long moment, replaying some cherished moments of her married life, before she returned to our conversation.
“And what about you?” she asked. “Why are you going to New York?”
I told her I was in the diamond business and was going there to close a deal on some diamonds.
“Oooh, diamonds!” Her lined face brightened. “Charlie—that was my husband—always said I’d have a diamond one day. When we got married all we could afford were the wedding bands. Then came the children, and with one thing or another we never did have enough money for luxuries. Every anniversary Charlie would say, ‘My dear, next year we’ll get you that diamond!’ But now there is no next year.”
She bowed her head and tried not to let me see the tears, but eventually she had to dab them away with a handkerchief tugged from the pocket of her old coat. In that moment, this sweet woman’s tears revealed to me why I was on that plane, sitting beside her. I asked her name.
“Evelyn,” she told me. “Evelyn Benson.”
“Well, Evelyn,” I said, “my name is Fred Cuellar and I just realized that fate has brought us together. What is your ring size?”
“I—I don’t know, really…” she stammered. “Why?”
“Because I am here to give you your diamond ring. Charlie had something to do with seating us together. I’m sure of it.”
I guessed her ring size at about a six; I had a grin sized extra large at this point.
“But I can’t afford it,” she protested. “We never could.”
“Evelyn,” I told her, “I am not selling you a diamond ring. I’m giving it to you, at Charlie’s request.”
Well, that made her cry even more, but the tears were happier now, and she gave me a big hug when we parted company at JFK airport.
When I got back to Houston I put together a modest, but very nice, diamond engagement ring and mailed it to Evelyn at the address in upstate New York she’d given me. Putting that package in the mail made me feel like a million dollars. No, better than that.
Six months later I received a small package at my Houston office. When I opened it, I found the diamond ring I’d sent to Evelyn Benson. With the ring was a note from her daughter, it read:
“Dear Mr. Cuellar, I’m returning the ring which you so graciously allowed my mother to wear for the last six months. Not a day went by that she didn’t show it to someone, proud as can be. She told people it was a gift from her late husband Charlie (my Dad). I’d never seen her as happy with anything in my life. My mother passed away last week, so I am returning your ring with many thanks for the joy you brought my mother. Sincerely, Jane Adams.”