R U O K ?

Mike McGough
September 2021

Theirs was a small rural community.  The church on the hill, was the largest building in town.  It was also the social center of the town.  There were no local industries.  Aside from the folks who ran a local general merchandise store, a small restaurant and bar, and a filling station, everyone else farmed, worked elsewhere, or was retired. 

Everyone knew everyone.  At times that was a bit of a problem, but generally it was no big issue.  For every example of someone minding too much of someone else’s business, there were a thousand instances of family and friends supporting for each other and looking out for one another.  They cared about each other.

However, one guy in town seemed to typify that sense of common caring more than anyone else.  His name was Charlie.  He ran the store in town.  It was no Macey’s, Gimbel’s, or Sears, but it had pretty much everything the locals needed.  And if by chance he didn’t have something a customer needed or wanted, Charlie would get it.  In addition to running the only store in town, Charlie was also an accomplished handyman, who could fix, install, or rebuild almost anything.   

Having run his store through part of the Great Depression, World War II, the Viet Nam era, and well into the 80s, this merchant and handyman had seen his town through some tough times.   Early on he had gotten into the habit of saying to folks, “Are you okay?”  More often than not, folks said that they were.  But when they didn’t, when money was tight, or when folks were dealing with tough circumstances, Charlie would do what he could to help. It was just part of who he was, and more importantly it was part of who he wanted to be.   He never kept a ledger of debts owed, but if he had, it would have been lengthy.

Well into his 80s, age and some health issues began to take their toll.   Even after closing the store, he lived out his years, still doing odd jobs now and again.  He liked to tinker, but more importantly he still liked to help people.  He wanted to help them be okay.

For one of the many kids who visited Charlie’s store, it was a kind and vivid memory that stuck with him.  As an older man, he could still recall the smell of the store, and how the wooden floors creaked when you walked on them.  His Grandmother lived just down the road. On Saturday trips to her cottage, a stop at Charlie’s was always a treat.  A quarter bought a tube of BBs, and enough penny-candy to last the day.  Root beer barrels were his favorite.   He came to know Charlie as a nice guy who always had something cheery to say and generally gave you more candy than you paid for.  But it wasn’t until this kid was older, much older in fact, that he learned just how nice a guy Charlie really was.   

During the quick visit to his grandmother’s cottage, which was still in the family, he stopped in the little town.  The building where the store had been was still standing, but it was then a private residence.  He asked a woman sitting on a porch of a neighboring house if Charlie was still alive.  “No,” she said, “Charlie died several years ago, and we still miss him every day.  The day he died, this little village and all of us who call it home, lost our best friend.  If everybody in town had paid him what they owed him, why he’d have been a millionaire twice over.”    

Then she said, “The thing I remember most about Charlie was how he always ask people if they were okay.  Whether in the store or if he came to your house to fix something, he’d always ask, ‘Are you okay?’  If you weren’t and you told him, he’d find some way to try and help you.   He’d try to make things a little better for you.  And if he couldn’t do anything right then and there, he’d check back with you.  We all remembered him saying that, and we agreed we’d miss him asking if we were okay.”

She said in Charlie’s memory, they make the effort and take the time to ask each other, “Are you okay,” particularly when they know a family member or friend may be going through a rough patch.  She then shared that the town also added an epitaph to his tombstone.  Because the simple tombstone was small it had to be short.  It reads, R U O K? 

When was the last time you took the time to ask someone, “Are you okay?”

Thank you, Charlie!