While many people enjoy photography as a hobby, Joyce Rhinehart has an unusual twist to her approach: specifically, she likes to take photos capturing heartwarming moments of random strangers. So, when she saw a family enjoying an ice cream together, she couldn’t resist taking a shot of them. Days later, however, she received some news about the people she had captured on film that gave her chills.
That fateful photo was taken on June 8, 2017, a day on which Rhinehart had accompanied her grandson, Blake, to a tennis lesson. As a treat, the grandmother then took him for ice cream afterwards. It was, for all it seems from the outside, and indeed for Rhinehart herself, a fairly ordinary Thursday.
In particular, Rhinehart treated her grandson to a visit to Rita’s Italian Ice, a decades-old water ice and ice cream parlor originally founded by a Philadelphia firefighter wanting to earn extra income. Named after the firefighter’s wife, Rita’s is enjoyed by families in multiple locations all across the U.S.
And when Rhinehart and her grandson had finished up their tasty treats, they naturally made their way to leave the parlor. As they headed outside, however, the grandma spotted another family enjoying some Rita’s ice cream together. What she saw, moreover, warmed her heart.
And in that moment, Rhinehart spotted the perfect opportunity to take one of her photos of random strangers. There was nothing remarkable or particularly outstanding about the family, however; they were simply sat on a bench outside the shop, eating ice cream cones.
“Something urged me to ask them if I could take their picture, which they did not hesitate to agree,” Rhinehart would later explain in a Facebook post. Indeed, although the scene may have appeared an ordinary one to anyone else, what she had seen in that moment was something she felt should be cherished.
Of course, this being the family’s moment, Rhinehart wanted to share the resulting snap with them. As she described on Facebook, “I took [the picture] and then handed my phone to the young daughter and told her to go ahead and text the picture to their cell phone.” Then they went their separate ways.
Rhinehart and Blake then set off for home and, on their way, Rhinehart explained to her grandson what she had done and why. She also revealed more about her hobby on Facebook, writing, “I have done this before when I see cute family moments of total strangers so they can have the memory. Usually, I do this on vacation. I know… I’m weird!”
But for Rhinehart, it’s just what she does. Indeed, she may not even have given the episode much further thought. The story, however, would continue, and this seemingly innocuous moment would become a greatly significant one for the family that Rhinehart photographed.
On Father’s Day, a couple of weeks after Rhinehart had taken the photo of the family at Rita’s, she was sitting on her patio when suddenly she received a text message on her phone. It was from a number she didn’t recognize; nonetheless, she read it.
The message, as it transpired, was from the family whose picture Rhinehart had taken on June 8. They had some news that they felt compelled to share with the stranger who had taken the photo. And it was information that left Rhinehart stunned.
As Rhinehart shared with her friends on Facebook, the message began, “Dear madam, you took our picture in front of Rita’s on June 8.” But as the missive continued, it took an unexpected turn. And as Rhinehart read further, she began to get goosebumps.
The message continued, “My wife has passed away yesterday, and this is the last picture we have together as a family. Please accept my deepest gratitude for your kindness, it means the world to me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Understandably, Rhinehart was shellshocked. She was touched, however, by the message and so responded. Indeed, she sent a few messages back and forth with the family, and in doing so she found out some more about what had happened.
Rhinehart learned that, despite her relaxed appearance in the photo, the man’s wife had in fact been sick for about a year and had been unable to overcome her illness. What Rhinehart had captured that day, then, was actually one of the last happy days the family had spent together.
As is often said, a picture can paint a thousand words. What’s more, in some circumstances, such as this one, they can be of immense comfort. After all, pictures can provide lasting memories of loved ones in their final days. And, well, there are other examples of similar situations to Rhinehart’s, too.
One such example occurred in September 2015. Alan Wright had visited a castle in Kent, U.K., with his wife, who passed away a few months later. While there, a man asked to take their photo in the castle’s grounds. And after realizing that this was the last photo of his wife, Wright appealed to a magazine to help track down the picture.
Another involved Canadian couple John and Jackie Knill, who were on a beach in Thailand as the tsunami struck in 2004. They were among the estimated 280,000 who perished in the disaster. When their camera was washed up, however, the photos it contained provided comfort for their sons.
“This is more than we could ever have asked for,” Patrick Knill told The Seattle Times back in 2005. “It’s like being there with our parents and seeing what they were seeing in those final moments. So many people still have no answers. It has taken so much stress off me and my brothers. It’s hard not knowing anything and now we know.”
So, as Rhinehart has since noted, a simple act of kindness can sometimes mean more than you even realize. Indeed, as she would go on to write on Facebook, “My heart is heavy for this sweet family I don’t even know and the tremendous gift that was left to them because I listened to my gut that day. I’m in awe!”