03/02/2012 12:47 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Short Way, Through Harrisburg


I didn't think I'd ever heard of Harrisburg, IL. When a tornado hit that small town and killed 6 people earlier this week, I thought about the strong winds I'd heard that night, but the name of the town 300 miles away didn't sound familiar.

Odd, considering the few minutes I spent there were quite memorable. But it wasn't until I came across some notes I took during a driving trip earlier this year that I realized the town was Harrisburg.

We'd been traveling from one college sporting event to the next, and decided we had enough of Interstate highways. It would take a little longer, but be a shorter distance, to take the state highway -- the one that goes through small towns with a few stoplights. But we had time.

Even while we were enjoying the not-so-spectacular drive, I was glad we'd chosen that route. Something about the beautiful fall day just lent itself to town-gazing. A native Illinoisan, I hadn't been to that part of the state and it was pleasant.

We noticed the Big John grocery store, we commented on Muddy, IL. (I would have remembered that town name!) As we approached modest downtown Harrisburg, we passed someone on the side of the road, dancing and waving.

It was one of those dressed-up people you sometimes see, trying to attract business to a Little Caesar's pizza joint or a Liberty tax accounting firm. But driving by at something like 35 mph, I thought I saw something cuter.

"Wait!" I said to my husband. "I think that was a Thin Mint!"

"Huh?" he said, luckily paying more attention to the road than the sights along the way.

"We just passed a little girl dressed up like something -- a thin mint maybe -- I'll bet she's selling Girl Scout cookies. She was so cute, jumping around. Let's go back!"

With a "you've got to be kidding me" look, he kept driving.

"No, really," I said, pointing to a great place to turn and drive a few blocks back. "I just want to tell her what a good job she's doing." Nothing. "Cookies!"

He likes cookies, and with the smarts of a man married many years, indulged my whine. We had plenty of time before our next sporting event. Besides, I told him while I motioned where to turn next, we can bring cookies for the team!

Sure enough, when we drove into the Family Video parking lot, there was a little girl in a Thin Mint costume on the sidewalk, dancing and waving to cars to get them to stop and buy cookies on a card table set up in front of the video store, manned by two moms and another scout or two.

While my husband made the difficult cookie decisions, I went to talk to the little marketer. "We stopped because of you!" I told her.

Expecting a quiet, small-town girl, she surprised me with quite the personality. She told me she'd been practicing her dancing for a while, and showed me the different steps she was doing and how she'd choreographed her moves. She explained how her mom had ordered the costume from the Girl Scouts, how much fun she was having waving to cars and what sorts of responses she'd been getting.

I asked her mom if I could take her picture, she looked so cute. I did, and texted it to my own "kids," just a little hint at what I'd be bringing next time I saw each of them.

One of the no-longer-kids texted back immediately: "Thin Mints!' Another was a bit less enthusiastic, but participated because he likes Thin Mints. A lot. The third isn't much into sweets, but they all good-naturedly agreed, yes, mom, that sure is cute.

The things you take time to enjoy when your own kids are grown definitely include other people's kids.

I told that story to a half dozen empty-nester friends after I came home, and they all smiled and sighed. Ah, those were the days when we spent our time overseeing cookie sales or dressing the kids in various costumes.

So it was with a start I realized the town so devastated by a tornado this week was where I'd had such a nice stop last fall. Returning to the car that day, another car pulled into the lot and we chatted briefly about the dancing Thin Mint and how they were drawn in by her antics, too. We smiled and waved as we drove away smiling, and I thought it was encounters like these that make life rich.

It makes me sad now, to think that little girl has been scared and upset this week, maybe even lost her home. But unfortunately I know that's quite likely. I hope that sunny personality helps her get through the tragedy she's facing, and cheer up her friends and family the way she brightened my day on a beautiful Harrisburg afternoon.