Sunday, January 12, 2014
LFH: The kindest eyes always see the invisible
It was always Mom’s idea to go visit Charles and Mary Shelley on Sunday afternoons.
We would climb into the buggy and head west on our curvy, one-lane dirt road in the hills of southeastern Ohio, to an ancient farmhouse with huge bushes around it.
Charles and Mary were brother and sister of some impossibly old age, and my predominant memory of their place is the pervasive darkness. I recall the house as a deep weather-beaten gray on the outside, the paint long since peeled away. Inside, only a bit of dim light from the windows illuminated the accumulation of years.
A narrow path led through the kitchen, past the table on the left with perhaps a dirty plate or the shriveled remains of a daffodil bouquet we had given weeks before, and the black wood stove on the right, with mysterious piles and objects beside and behind. Then we would turn left into the living room and sit around the coal-burning stove on uncertain chairs while Mary sat in a rocking chair that had an arm fastened on with baling twine.
Everything was covered in coal dust. Anything we touched left a black smudge on our fingers. And everything we couldn’t touch was obviously dusty, as well — the lace curtains hanging in gloomy shreds at the dirty windows, Charles’ ragged jacket, the calendars from bygone years still hanging from nails on the ancient peeling wallpaper, the careful pile of empty Bufferin boxes on the once-lovely side table in the living room. Even Mary’s little wire-rimmed glasses were so smudged and dusty we didn’t see how she could see through them.
With every visit, the details of that place embedded into my fascinated childhood mind. I remember longing to explore and discover the historic wonders in the shadowy corners. Legend had it that one door in the living room led to a parlor with an organ, and another door led upstairs to heaven-only-knew what treasures. But any curiosity on our part was quickly squelched by a glare from Mom, who sensed Mary’s nervousness when we wandered too far or poked too deep.
My brother Fred managed to leave the conversation one afternoon and walk softly into the kitchen. He was inspecting the old wood stove when suddenly a rooster crowed loudly, right beside him, it seemed, and Fred was so startled he whacked his head on the overhanging pie-warmer.
It turned out that Charles and Mary had felt sorry for their pet rooster, out in the cold weather, and had placed him in a wooden crate in the kitchen.
So we would try to sit quietly and contain our curiosity while Charles and Mary told Mom and Dad about the old days and “Charlie’s” last visit to the doctor and if they were staying warm this winter and that they were thinking about maybe getting a telephone and how soon they predicted the bush outside, that their mother had planted, would bloom with its unusual, fragrant, coral-colored blossoms.
We left Ohio and moved to Minnesota when I was 10. As I recall, other neighbors kept us informed, now and then, as the Shelleys grew older and eventually passed away. In the 40 years since, I have never met anyone quite like Charles and Mary.
Which says a lot about my mother.
Mom passed away suddenly last month at the age of 93. We traveled to Minnesota, where snow drifted deeply across the dirt roads, fierce winds blew, and the temperature dropped below zero the day of the funeral and burial.
Mom would not have thought the weather was such a big deal, as she almost never let ice and snow stop her from anything.
And she would not have appreciated that her funeral turned into such a big fuss, with people stranded at airports, cars stuck in snowdrifts and many worried phone calls, all for her sake.
Among the family, publicly at her service and around the tables at the dinner that followed, our stories repeatedly circled back to what a remarkable person she was.
Mom raked leaves and washed windows well past the age of 90. She quilted and sewed and crocheted, hauled and hoed and cooked and canned.
She got enormous enjoyment out of watching animals out her windows and detailing their activities in letters to her large family. The deer and pheasants were browsing in the cornfield every morning, she would report. And the rooster thinks the feisty old cat with one ear is his girlfriend, she wrote me once. They hang out together every day, out by the barn.
She trapped skunks in the old silo in a Havahart trap and killed rats in the garage. She made exquisite jellies and blessed her children with handmade rugs and quilts.
But always, our stories and our amazement came back to Mom and her astonishing gift for noticing people. Unlike the rest of us, who often charge through life ignoring most people and taking note only of important ones who have something to offer us, Mom saw individual people with a sharp clarity, wise insight and heartfelt concern.
Mom gave birthday cards to children and plates of cookies to the “old people” at church, who eventually were all younger than she and Dad.
She hunted through the Amish newspaper, The Budget, for news of people who were sick or injured, and she sent them get-well cards or homemade scrapbooks with Bible verses and illustrations. She worried about teenagers who seemed to be struggling, and made a point of trying to encourage them.
Even in the nursing home in recent months and fuzzy with dementia, she would sit in the lounge, watch people, and murmur her observations. “That man over there, now, he is someone who would help you if you needed it.” Of a small and energetic activities director, she whispered, “That little goose. She thinks she’s so smart!”
Mostly, though, we marveled at how Mom took note of the invisible people. In any crowd of people, Mom would locate the loneliest outcast and start a conversation. If you were dirty, poor or eccentric, Mom was your friend. If you were toothless and cussed a bit, so much the better. If you were the sort that everyone walked by without seeing, Mom would not only see you but shake your hand and ask how you were doing.
If you served anonymously behind the scenes, she searched you out, thanked you, and made you a pan of cinnamon rolls for Christmas.
And if you were isolated from the rest of society, like Charles and Mary Shelley, she found you, visited you on Sunday afternoons and made sure you stayed warm in winter.
I don’t think it ever crossed her mind that people might not quite know what to make of this friendly Amish woman. Nor did she worry about appearances, or association, or what important people might think.
In the fifth grade and new to public school, I made the mistake of telling Mom about a girl named Carmen in the fourth grade who always looked sad and dirty.
Even though Mom had never met her, Carmen became her project. I was supposed to talk with her. I was supposed to be her friend. My protests that we were in different rooms made no difference. We passed on the stairs, didn’t we? All right. You can be nice to her then.
I didn’t try telling Mom my biggest concern, that it would not be cool to be Carmen’s friend. I wasn’t that stupid.
That spring, Mom’s craftsy sister gave her a large homemade candle shaped like an egg. Mom had a brilliant idea — I was to give this to Carmen, to show her that somebody cared about her! I kept silent about the fact that this was a terrible idea in every direction, and I meekly carried the heavy candle, wrapped in tissue paper, to school, where I mercifully found Carmen momentarily alone and gave her the candle.
To Mom’s joy, she met Carmen in the laundromat downtown not long afterward, recognizing her from my descriptions. “Did Dorcas give you a candle?” she asked.
Carmen actually smiled a little, Mom reported later, and then Carmen said, “Yes, and it looks like an egg.”
You would have thought Mom had won the lottery, she was so pleased.
Mom always turned to sewing during the hard transitions of her life, and these days, since her passing, I find myself doing the same. I sew dresses for my daughters and cut out a new bathrobe and run my hands over my stash of cotton scraps, planning projects like Mom’s that are useful and resourceful and economical.
Mostly, though, I think not so much about sewing or even about missing Mom but about having eyes that really see. I wonder how one receives that rare vision that focuses not only on projects and deadlines and prominent people, but on the dirty, the invisible, the outcast, the dusty and lonely treasures down a hidden gravel road.