Taped to the bottom of my computer monitor is the obituary of a complete stranger. It’s only six sentences long; the death notice is of a woman named Gussie LaJean Crittle.
Back on June 22 of 2014, I received an email with the subject, “I have no idea how to succeed.” It was from a Gussie Critle (yes, only one “t” in her name, even though the death notice has two).
As an author and someone who is active on social media, I get over 20 emails each day from people I don’t know. But this message was a little different than what I usually get. It simply read:
“I cannot speak. Lost my voice 30 years ago. Don’t won’t [sic] to throw a pity party but I am stuck.”
At first I was suspicious. Mixed in with all the legitimate questions or gratitude I get from readers, I also get requests from people asking me to donate to their church, to invest in their startup, and occasionally, some attractive woman half my age wants to know if I’d like to go on a date. (As tempting as that last one is, I just know I’d wake up in an ice bath without a kidney.)
Looking back, I’m not sure why I assumed Gussie Critle was setting me up for a request for money.
Maybe it was the unusual name. Gussie Critle? Where is this person even from?
Maybe it was the terseness of the email. Her style is so direct. No hello, no preamble, just:
I cannot speak. Lost my voice 30 years ago.
I think I was also frustrated at how vague the question was. I get that a lot—one-line emails like, “Please tell me how to become a New York Times bestselling author.” Really? Should I start with how to write? Or how to find a publisher? Or how to launch and market a book, or…?
And I hope not, but it’s just possible that I had other fleeting thoughts. There is no way this woman will ever buy a book from me. Obviously, she isn’t going to hire me for a speaking gig or becoming a client.
I hesitated, but hit Reply and typed sort of a test message. I figured Gussie was probably some flake or not even a real person, so before I took the time to answer, I wanted to test her out. I’m embarrassed by this now, but that’s how it happened. I wrote back a terse note of my own:
“Hi Gussie, thanks for your note. I'm just curious, where do you call home? I'm just outside Philadelphia.
You say you are stuck. When you ask “how to succeed,” what do you want to succeed with?
To my surprise, only one hour later, Gussie replied.
“Sherman, MS is my current home. My whole life was my voice. I have a handicapped daughter, it’s been 30 years since my cancer. Bad choices in men, school and life choices I am no baby, but I am still here. I just need a way to generate money for me and my daughter.”
Now at this part of the story I wish I could share that I actually gave Gussie some money, or found a way to secretly pay her utility bills each month, or that I drove down to Mississippi and befriended her. But I did none of those things.
With her second email, she sure sounded like a real person, with a real question. “Bad choices in men…” actually made me chuckle. “I am no baby” once again declaring that she isn’t feeling sorry for herself.
“But I am still here” is the line that resonates with me in ways I still don’t fully understand.
And yet I was still suspicious. Am I getting played for a fool? Am I getting conned by some online scammers who come up with sob stories and hit up people on the internet?
Thankfully, I did send Gussie an answer, albeit a short one. I replied:
“Gussie, my only suggestion is that more people are making money from home than ever before thanks to the Internet and computers. You seem to be quite computer savvy… you found me! I don't know what knowledge and skills you have–and of course it's always a good idea to keep developing those–but you might browse around some of these sites where people are making a lot of money from home.
Etsy: Many people sell their arts and crafts through this online store.
Fiverr: People offer to do all kinds of stuff for five bucks.
Upwork: People offer skills for a variety things (proofreading, writing, etc.).
Shopify: People sell all kinds of goods by setting up an online store.
Ebay: Same idea…you can set up your own page and sell things using an auction model.
It's great if you have some skill like proofreading, or can make a unique product or craft. But I know several people that just resell things online they get from somewhere else. Maybe there are some local Mississippi products, foods, recipes that you can buy and then resell online for a profit.
I just hope this sparks some creative ideas. I'm sure you can find something you can do from home. I look forward to hearing of your success.”
Gussie didn’t reply with a thank you. She never asked any follow-up questions. I never heard from her again.
For the next two years, I rarely thought of Gussie at all. When I did remember her, it was triggered by some random email request for money from a stranger. I’d think back and wonder whether Gussie was a real person who wasted my time, or was a fake identity from someone who was setting up a scam.
But earlier this year everything changed. Unexpectedly, I received this email:
“Hello I hope your [sic] doing fine. My name is Timika Crittle. I don't know if you remember my mother Gussie Crittle writing to you in Fall of 2014. My mother lost her voice due to cancer. She written [sic] to for advice on how she can generate income and provider for her family. I want to thank you for replying to her email and giving her advice. It lifted her spirit and gave her hope again. Sadly my mother never got the chance to try what you subjected [sic]. My mother developed cancer again in 2014 and lost her battle on Sept 29, 2015.”
I read Timika Crittle’s email and I cried.
Not entirely sure why I cried. I think I was both sad that I had ever doubted the email from “Gussie Critle” to begin with, and sad that I hadn’t actually done more.
And I was sad for Gussie’s passing and for her daughter Timika—I’ve lost my mother, too. In only two emails, I could tell Gussie was a unique spirit. I did some Googling and quickly learned that Gussie’s middle name was LaJean; she used to work as a housekeeper, and she was 65 years old when she passed.
Timika’s simple message of thanks was a huge gift that reminded me of why I write, give talks, and answer emails from readers.
Like most people, although I wish I was immune, I often desire the external validation that comes from vanity metrics. How come my post on Facebook didn’t get over 100 likes? Will my blog article get over 1,000 views? I hope my book hits the bestseller lists!
But now, I ground myself each morning with Gussie LaJean Crittle’s obituary. I read it as my computer boots up. It’s my reminder to assume the best of intentions in all I meet, to make the time to answer as many questions as I can, and to remember that giving hope is just as important as giving knowledge .
And while I still want to impact many, I now write each new article and each new book with the goal to help just one person.
Photo: Kevin Kruse