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|March 3, 2004||
Vol. 1, No. 211
Life can be cruel to good people
by Arthur Jones, NCR editor at large
I struggle with a couple of things where belief is concerned. I'll get to them later in the week. No doubts about God, about Jesus though. I've the faith of a peasant. It couldn't be cut out from my flesh or thoughts because it is my flesh and thoughts. It can't be separated from me, nor I from it.
I don't know why I feel this strongly. I don't even care why I feel this strongly. I simply accept that it is so. And know I have never felt differently. And, of course, I'm a dreadful Christian. I used to say about my mother and her sisters -- just a throwaway line -- they were quick on the morality (judgmental) and slow on the compassion.
I should talk.
My mother's family was part of a tramps circle. "Tramps," the English word for "hobos" or "bums," wWhich meant that the wandering men knew they could always get a cup of tea and a sandwich at the house of Alice or Eileen or Vera or Nora or Gertie, or their mother, who lived at No. 82.
At our house we had a tin mug called the "tramp's cup," kept especially for the callers.
These sisters were also very, very funny. Cutting. A savage wit in scoring, scarring others, bringing them down to size. Always the precise phrase, usually punctuated with something from Shakespeare, the Scriptures, or an obscure Scots saying. I was once caught out in a fib by my Auntie Duck (Gertie, so nicknamed because, when being nice, she called everyone, "Duck").
They were a family that knew about lies -- but they thought of their own as acceptable romancing. The invented family histories and connections were sufficient to fill a library shelf. (A bit like Sir Compton Mackenzie's views of his fellow Scots: "They make a romance out of commerce and commerce out of romance.")
Their compassion took strange turns. Sixty years ago, in a society in which the oddity, the foreigner, was ridiculed, Grandmother Ward at No. 82 had a neighbor quite far down the road who was particularly unusual for the time. A man who dressed as a woman and wobbled around in high heel shoes and a dress in public.
My grandmother would never allow a word to be said against him. He was not to be the subject of jokes.
We had "Peter Penny," a strange little man with a big head in the days when the British penny was the size of a half-dollar. He always had one, which he used as a steering wheel to drive his imaginary car around town. One gave pennies to Peter Penny.
There was Nora, the lady who said St. Francis of Assisi smoked.
In a brown paper bag she kept a Catholic Truth Society booklet about St. Francis' life stuffed down the front of her dress. When she got to the end of her cigarette -- the stage the English call, "the dimp," and Americans "the butt," she reach in and pull out the brown paper bag.
And she'd unwrap the brown paper, and pull out the booklet, and place the remains of the lighted cigarette end on the burn-marked front cover, and re-wrap the whole thing and stick it back down her dress with the comment, "He smokes."
And now they're all in Heaven -- except Eileen's still alive in her late 80s.
Eileen is a woman who knows the difficult line that compassion cuts like a razor across one's life.
In the depths of the Great Depression, Eileen, the funniest of the five, ran a post office. Men were on the dole. And as their money was spent, with a day or two to go before their got their dole again on the Friday, and with families to feed, they'd come into the post office.
And they'd say, "Eil, can you lend us a bob (a shilling, about five dollars today in purchasing power), or a tanner (sixpence, half that amount), until Friday." And she did. It wasn't her money. It was government money.
And one day a man came in and asked for a tanner, and she said, "Oh, love" (like the late Australian writer Maurice West's family, everyone in my extended family calls everyone - male and female --"love"), "Oh love," she says, "I daren't. I've got so much extended that if the (postal) inspector comes around to check the till I'll lose me job."
She really felt she couldn't do it.
And two days later the man was found dead. From complications due to malnutrition. And Eileen's lived with it for 60 years.
Life can be awfully cruel to good people.
Arthur Jones' e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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