LONDON, ONTARIO – One of my favourite encounters of the year took place in that couple weeks of false spring we had in the last half of February when the considerable accumulation of winter snow melted away and some naïve souls dared to wonder, “Could that possibly be it? Wasn’t that a little too easy?” And then, whump: on came a pitilessly cold March and a mostly frigid and sometimes Biblically torrential April. Here, on the very eve of Mayday, like winter-weary dogs who’ve been repeatedly teased with a luscious green stick that’s yanked away just as we try to bite down on it, we consider the averages and the odds and our knowledge of the way this world rolls along, and resolve that surely now it’s safe to trust that the proffered treat will not be withheld again.
So there I was in the late afternoon of one of those clear and mild days in late February walking across the Queens Ave. bridge on my way into town. I was vaguely aware of a man up ahead walking in the same easterly direction as me but on the northern sidewalk and started to pay more attention as he purposefully crossed over to my side of the street just where the bridge ends behind the northwest corner of Museum London. He started poking around in the dirt and the grit that was wudged up against the sidewalk curb and plucked something out which he frantically wiped clean, stared at in wonder, cleaned up some more, and then looked around with an expression of dumbfounded joy and relief.
I was just drawing up next to him by this point, a little curious about what he’d found but also cautious that I might be in for a brush with weirdness. “Can I . . . ?” he asked. “Would you mind if I . . .? This is so great. Can I tell you something?”
I’d estimate he was in his mid-40s. Clearly he was excited out of his tree but he didn’t seem certifiable or dangerous. The fact that he sort of asked three times whether it would be okay if he talked to me suggested that he was cognizant of the parameters of civility and decorum.
“Absolutely,” I said and then his story came tumbling out.
He’d been laid off from his construction job in Alberta late in the fall and having no other job prospects in sight, had come to London to be with his mother as she underwent hip replacement surgery and serve as her chauffeur and all-round step-and-fetch-it until she was able to get back up on her pins. He was otherwise alone in London and though happy to have spent so much time with his mother and been of help when she needed it so much, he was going a little stir-crazy with the cooped-up and snowed-in routine that he’d signed up for.
On just about any pretense he’d head out on foot to run quick errands at the Library or the Market and on one of these sorties, shortly before Christmas, an item of immense sentimental value had slipped through a hole in his pocket though he didn’t notice this until a few more days of heavy snow – and heavy ploughing of snow – had passed. He tried to retrace his steps whenever he could but as more and more snow accumulated and got shifted around over the passing days and weeks, he realized any hope of recovering the object was very dim indeed.
And then he showed it to me. It was a stone that his kids had given him, perhaps as big in its wobbly circumference as a silver dollar and three or four times as thick. You see them in gift shops sometimes, varnished or polished (like his) with a word or a name inscribed or engraved upon the upper surface. This one read, “Believe”.
“I know it isn’t worth much but it is to me because it came from them and I don’t get to see them that often,” he said, smearing a tear from the corner of his eye with the heel of his thumb that wasn’t caked with quite as much dirt from the ditch as the rest of his hands.
I pointed to the pucker in the mud from which he’d pulled the stone and then pointed across the road. “You came over here in a straight line and made right for this spot,” I said.
“That’s right,” he said, amazed to recall it.
“Did you see something? A glint of light or something?”
“No, nothing. In fact I was feeling a little sad because it occurred to me that I’d almost stopped looking for it. But you’re right. I turned and came across right there and started rooting around right here.” He shook his head and laughed. “And there it was.” After a few more seconds, he started to apologize for taking up so much of my time.
“Not at all,” I assured him. “I’m glad you did.”
“Thanks for listening to me, man. I had to tell somebody,” he said, and then headed off up Queens Ave., with a decided spring in his step and jiggling the newly reclaimed stone in his jacket pocket.
I’ve thought about my effusive friend many times since then, certainly whenever I pass over the eastern side of the Queens Ave. bridge, and once when I came across an internet posting of Life magazine photographer, Gerald Waller’s celebrated 1946 photo of Werfel, a six-year-old Austrian orphan who was similarly excited out of his tree to receive a pair of new shoes from the American Red Cross at the end of World War II. (see image above)
I think I made that connection between my nameless friend and Werfel because what I find so touching in both cases is a certain purity of heart which allowed both these fellows who were obviously going through some pretty rough patches in their lives, to take joy and express gratitude for the blessings that occasionally fall their way.
And there’s always been something of that same feeling for me in the final arrival of spring – particularly one as long-delayed as 2018’s. You come out into the sunlight after a long season’s darkness, you take stock of where you are and what you need, you give thanks for the good things and the good people you still have contact with and hatch fresh plans for the temperate seasons ahead. I hope my nameless friend gets a chance for some contact with more than a stone that reminds him of his kids; I hope his mother is training to run some sort of marathon; and I hope 78 year-old Werfel is thriving somewhere in Austria with grandchildren that he gets to take shopping for shoes.
Photo – Gerald Waller: New Shoes (1946)
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
Monday, January 28
St. Peter's Seminary
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