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A life lesson, learned at the dry cleaner

I missed the dry cleaner.

Until a few months ago, I had been going every week. I started when I could still put my daughter in her car seat on the counter for all to see. Now almost 12, she towers over the same counter, rapidly approaching my own height.

Back in the days of our daughter's infancy, my husband and I were willing to trade money for sleep. I, in post-partum clothes, started taking his work shirts to be dry cleaned. Over the years and back at work, I have taken in everything from party to funeral attire to be cleaned, the clothes marking the passages of our lives.

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I missed the dry cleaner because my husband has decided to move out. In the division of finances and responsibilities and household chores that comes with the end of 20 years together, he no longer takes out the garbage and I no longer take his shirts anywhere.

Specifically, I missed my conversations with the store's owner. He is a magnificent man with flashing eyes, a tidy mustache and a ready smile. Over the counter these many years I have learned a little of his story: He is originally from Lebanon; he has a wife and now almost-grown sons that he adores; he misses his morning coffee most during Ramadan. He has been teaching me Arabic, and occasionally I share some civil service French.

I would know more if I didn't think it rude to pry. I am forever saying hello to people I don't know. What is remarkable is not that people reply, but that they are so anxious to. They really want to talk to strangers.

This, which is supposed to be a bad thing, was made acceptable for me at my mother's knee. She did it all the time and anywhere. Still does, in fact. When I was a teenager, I remember being mortified by Mum's unrelenting chit chat. I was at the age when my fondest desire was that she be silent and invisible, but no amount of eye-rolling from me would make her stop.

Thirty years on, I still think it was indecorous to tell every single stranger we met on the way home from the vet –bus driver included – that our dog had just died. But I am beginning to understand that there was method to her madness. And woe betide my own daughter, now on the cusp of her own adolescence, because I have decided to keep speaking to strangers.

I am a biologist. We – my ilk and I – are trained in the structure and power of the breathtakingly beautiful, jaw-droppingly complex living webs that everyone calls ecosystems. Generally, the more robust an ecosystem – the more species it has and the more connections there are among them – the more stable it is. Redundancy provides resilience: In having options for dinner or drink or den lies the ability to survive the vicissitudes of weather and chance.

Dense as the proverbial doorknob, I have only just realized that the same goes for the human world I wade through. The myriad people lying at the interstices of my life – not friends but more than casual acquaintances – are bonds nevertheless. Tied between the vital radial strands that are my family and friends, these connections with one-time strangers have give my life's web a tensile strength that I could hardly have imagined until my marriage began to unravel.

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Take the dry cleaner, for instance. Eleven years at 15 minutes a week adds up to more than 140 hours of "How are you?" and "How is your partner?" and "What are your kids up to?" and "What is the news of your family overseas?"

Last time I went in, he asked me what was wrong. I wore it on my face, I guess. I explained as briefly and as fairly as I could: It takes two to build a relationship and two to allow it to crumble, and the man whose shirts I used to bring in had decided to move out. My long-time acquaintance said exactly the right thing in that moment, taking no sides, offering only support: Things fall apart. You will get through the pain. If you need anything, let us know.

I am not as talkative as my mother and do not share details as widely. Still, I have followed her lead and found an unexpected wellspring of care, from my fiercely tattooed hairdresser to the irreverent veterinary technician, from the local café owner to my mailman, who noticed a change in his route.

I had been like a skydiver with a dud chute, expecting the hard ground. Instead, I have found myself pulled up short by a net made over the years, one knot – one unwitting hello – at a time. This gossamer tapestry has broken my fall.

I went back to the dry cleaner recently, empty-handed, to visit the owner and give him my thanks. It was good to see him again and in that visit I learned something even more miraculous – in listening to his joys and tribulations this past decade, I have become part of his web too, a reassuring, smiling familiarity, offering kindness in the storm.

So, to the consternation and everlasting embarrassment of my daughter, I shall continue to talk to the world. She is as cautious a child as I was and will not talk to just any stranger. But I hope that by my example she will learn the same ropes, will one day comprehend the lesson in her grandmother's flamboyant, familiar ways: Warmth begets warmth, and connections make you whole.

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Leslie Beckmann lives in Vancouver. Her first novel, The Sum of All Evils , was released in March.

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