Monday, June 6, 2011

The Little Girl and The Beggar

I spent an hour or so with Edith one afternoon last week.  That's not her real name, but I'll call her that anyways.  She's 81 years old and lives in a lovely apartment with her dog Bubbles.  Actually, that's not the name of her dog either, but that's what I've decided to call her for now.  I first met Edith one Sunday morning right after we came to Elmira, and it would be some months before I'd see her again.  The next time was at a church dinner, and we just happened to sit next to each other at the same table.  By the time the meal was over, I had decided she was rather brusque and a bit unpolished.  No, I didn't much care for this Edith person.  I didn't think about her again until I heard a passing comment several months later that she was a bit put out with the pastor who had never bothered to call on her.  I decided I cared for her even less.  Not too many weeks back, however, Edith was back.  And the next week she was back again and then the next.  "I think it's time we went to visit Edith," I said to Larry.

The door was already wide open when we got there,  she was obviously anticipating our visit.  She pulled herself up with her walker and opened her arms in welcome to embrace us.  Bubbles was in the background barking excitedly, her leash attached to the sliding glass door and hardly able to contain herself at the sight of company.  I found a chair nearby so I could fuss over her, at the same time taking in the room. It was surprisingly large for an apartment, bright and cheery from the light streaming in through the sliding glass doors and from the colors of her furnishings.  I liked it and felt immediately at home.

During the next hour I would learn that Edith had raised a large family, then went on to have a successful career as both a nurse and a teacher.  She had a husband whom she absolutely adored, left her job to care for him when he became ill, and grieved long and hard for him when he was gone.  I felt my throat thicken as she described that dark time in her life and how God brought her out of that depression through a pastor's visit.  But she didn't dwell on that for long.  This visit wasn't going to be all about her, she wanted to know more about these two people who had come to spend an hour with her on this lovely June afternoon.  She seemed as geniunely interested in knowing the details of our lives and family as we were about hers. When I was ready to leave I hugged her tightly and told her how much I really, really liked her.  "I like you too," she said and squeezed me back just as hard.  As Larry and I walked to the car, I knew what I needed to say.  "I misjudged her and I was wrong."

How easy it is to form quick conclusions about others, especially when we find them abrasive or rude.   I had stopped for a few items at the local grocery store recently and was pricing meat at the deli department.  As the woman working behind the counter approached to help,  I told her what I was doing and that I wasn't ready to buy.  She turned away in a bit of a huff and rolled her eyes to the ceiling.  I was shocked and indignant at the poor treatment I had just received and thought for a moment of filing a complaint against her.  But then I thought otherwise.  Sure, it's possible she might simply be miserable, someone who's never learned the art of courtesy. If so, she won't have that job for long.  But what if something had happened that morning to set her off, like maybe a child in trouble, or not having enough money to pay the rent or the responsibility of an aging parent requiring extra care?  I think it's only right to give her the benefit of the doubt. After all, I'd like someone to do the same for me. 

I learned a hard lesson many years ago on making assumptions.  I was shopping in El Ceibeno, a supermarket in La Ceiba, Honduras, when I saw this little girl, maybe six or seven, come flitting through the store.  She was into everything, touching the bags of eggs, pushing the buttons on the coke machine, never stopping for more than a few seconds before she was into something else.  She was having a wonderful time,  her eyes twinkling and with this big grin that seemed to be aimed at no one in particular.  But I couldn't help but notice how filthy she was. Her face was smudged with dirt, her dress hadn't been washed in who knows how long, and her hair was unkempt and dirty.  I saw poor kids all the time, but I was especially appalled at the condition of this little girl.  How difficult would it be for her mother to wash her face and comb her hair?  Couldn't she see how much she needed a bath?

As I walked out of the store that afternoon I passed the beggars who were sitting or standing in the shade that the wall provided.   And then I saw her, that same little girl who only minutes before had been playing in the store aisles.  But now she had her arms clasped around the legs of a woman standing not far from the entrance.  Her head was flung back, her smile wide and proud as she looked adoringly at the woman who was obviously her mother.  The woman was returning the smile, one hand lovingly placed on the child's head, the other cupped and thrust forward, silently asking those passing by for what they could give. I suddenly felt ashamed.  I knew why she was there, why she came day after day to beg. I looked into her eyes as I passed the two of them.  She never saw me.  How could she?  She was blind.
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