I’d hitchhiked almost a 1,000 miles to see them, and left wishing I hadn’t . . . .”
If you’ve read any of my other posts you’ll know I was brought up in a country town west of Sydney, Australia. It seems so long ago now as I get close to my 70’s.
My family moved to that town when I was about 6 years old, one of 4 children. Our parents both worked, our father as a traveling insurance salesman and our mother ran our small store attached to the family home (this was before the big supermarkets moved in and monopolized the market). Two incomes meant our family got by OK.
I had lots of time and freedom to roam the countryside and town while my parents were working. It didn’t take me long to become acquainted with the next-door neighbours, an old couple I’ll call Bert and Martha.
Bert was a stocky old guy, in his 70s (not much older than I am now). His legs didn’t work very well, probably the result of childhood polio or a war injury, and needed 2 walking canes to slowly get around. They were from the generation who’d survived both world wars and were still living in the country town they were born and grew up in.
These days Bert would be considered to have a physical handicap, but he got around OK with his 2 canes, albeit very slowly. I never heard him complain about his life. They had an extensive vegetable and fruit garden that almost covered their entire quarter acre block, plus a garage with a workshop squeezed around their 1940’s black Zephyr Six car.
I befriended them early on and probably made a nuisance of myself when I was young. But as I got older, into my teens, I believe I helped Bert out a lot.
Because he couldn’t bend over, I helped him garden, cut firewood with his crosscut saw, and with many other chores. But what I remember most was helping Bert in his workshop, repairing and making gadgets for around the home and garden. He taught me how to use every woodworking tool he had. His tutorage enabled me to become the most skilled woodworker at school, and carpentry is a skill I’ve used my entire life.
On the weekend, and weekday afternoons, I would be there by his side, stopping only to amble up the yard to the kitchen where Martha would have ready coffee with chicory root and the date scones she baked every Monday which seemed only to get better as the week progressed.
So, I spend a lot of time with them. Bert was, in my eyes, a man of the world. But when I was 16 our family moved 1,000 miles away to Brisbane, Australia, and I lost contact. I won a scholarship at high school and went on to study architecture at university. After 2 years of study, during the Christmas vacation, I decided to hitchhike back to the town my family had left behind to see some old school friends. But my main reason was to visit Bert and Martha, to thank them for their friendship and for what I’d learned from Bert.
I’d been away for 4 years and by now it was the early 1970’s. I was dressed like a hippy student, long hair, typical for the times, but I was not a hippy as such. All the hippies I knew where not productive whereas myself and my friends worked hard at study. But we were certainly inquisitive and challenged the political and administrative structural status quo.
It took me 2 days to hitchhike back. I arrived in town late one light and rented a motel room. I figured 10.00am next morning would be a good time to visit Bert and Martha, so I walked just a few blocks from the motel and tapped on their door.
The knock was answered with them peering out of a half-closed door. They looked the same, but they did not recognize me. Not only that but even after I introduced myself there was still suspicion and fear in their eyes.
I could not understand their reaction. Sure, my body had changed but I was the same person. And I was probably dressed differently from most people in the town, but I WAS the same person.
It was very uncomfortable standing there talking through the doorway, them neither coming out to greet me nor inviting me into the house that I had been in thousands of times just a few years earlier. I tried to thank them for helping me when I was younger, but just ended up mumbling nothing much. I was hoping they would start talking to me as they use to, but I saw only fear. They just wanted to close the door and get away from this stranger who looked and dressed differently than the person they had known and looked differently than others in the small town.
I was devastated and heartbroken at the same time and walked away dumbfounded. Though I had planned to stay in town and visit some old school friends, I went back to the motel, packed my bag, and hitchhiked back to Brisbane.
It concerned me so much that they could not see I was the same person as before. It started me thinking about prejudice based on our perceptions. Who among us can say they don’t judge people by their looks? I can’t, but I can teach myself not to. Someone may be a different color, a different age, a different nationality. They may be a street person, or a stockbroker. I need to not judge a person by how they look. I need to SEE others and not get caught up in appearances.
Today I understand why Bert and Martha were like they were. The times they grew up in and living through two world wars shaped their lives. A dear friend of mine, who also knew them, pointed out that I should not judge them too harshly; “They lived very quiet lives, had limited educations, and no doubt their views of the world were very conservative and what we would have considered old fashioned. Their outside world would have been shrinking, and the many cultural changes in the 60’s, would have been incomprehensible to those born before or at the turn of the century. They would not have appreciated the incredible gesture that your difficult trip to visit entailed.”
And I did not look at the world through their eyes; they had this memory of this young blonde haired kid who would come by almost every day and talk and help the with chores, and who turns up unexpectedly at the door a few years later? Some long haired hippy! The opportunity to write them after this event was always there, but I didn’t. I was this self absorbed 20yr old who didn’t think of that. I now look back with the wisdom of time.
But today I don’t believe I judge them harshly on this one incident. I think of them fondly and they are often in my thoughts, especially Bert, as he mentored me with the many skills I still use today. No, I still love them dearly.
In the scale of the events of my life it was, in a sense, a small thing. But 50 years later I still remember it so clearly because it played a pivotal role in my search to know more about life.
A search that led me to not only understand that I am not this body, but to EXPERIENCE I am not the body. Our bodies change but the spirit soul within each body, does not.
One who always sees all living entities as spiritual sparks, in quality one with the Lord, becomes a true knower of things. What, then, can be illusion or anxiety for them?”
Shri Ishopanishad, Mantra 7
Namaste and thank you. Chaitanya das