There’s a woman who treads the pathways of the park where I take my morning walk. She pushes an old pram filled with bread and the treasures she finds in the bins she systematically searches, stopping periodically to feed the ducks, swans, seagulls, pigeons and the park’s resident heron. My first sightings of her triggered my judgmental side which quickly concluded that she is probably crazy and really shouldn’t be feeding the animals, but I kept my thoughts to myself and said ‘Good morning‘ whenever we passed each other. This morning I saw her up on the hill, inspecting the contents of a bin flanked by two benches, each supporting a sleeping bag, doubtless filled with the same homeless people I had seen the previous day.
Towards the end of my walk I had a conversation with her for the first time. I had stopped to admire the view, my attention drawn to the lowest branches of a tree laden with springtime; its leaves almost touching the water as the river bent its course towards the rising sun. She offered me a bread roll, which I politely declined, but I did comment on the beauty of the red roses she had in her pram. Without breaking stride she passed me by, telling me she had found them next to one of the bins. As she disappeared out of sight I remained where I was, appreciating the view, the fresh air, the warmth of the sunshine and the quietness of an Easter Monday morning.
I caught up with her on the bridge. As it transpires, she’s not crazy. She’s 80 years old, a child of the war, she lost her husband last year and they would have been married 50 years this year. Her two children both work in professions which deal with death: one is a pathologist, the other an undertaker. She told me her pathologist son sees everything eventually on his slab and that when he walks into his workplace and finds a pair of white gloves on his table, they are a warning sign, left by a colleague, that a young child’s body lies under the thin white sheet. She is disillusioned and disappointed by the way humans behave and that is why she feeds the animals. They are hungry and they don’t lie or cheat her; neither do they harm each other to the extent that we can. And she feeds them knowing she faces a fine for doing so. We chatted for ten minutes before she said goodbye and went on her way.
This post is not written just because of her, but also because of the man who passed us as we spoke, and who looked at the old lady with disdain when she wished him a good morning. I have seen him twice before. The first time was a few mornings ago in his front garden during the home stretch of my walk. He was cleaning his bleach-white labrador before allowing the dog into the house after a walk of their own. The second sighting was this morning, prior to my conversation with the old lady. He passed me without any acknowledgement. Again, my judgmental side reached one of its lightning-quick conclusions. Here is a man who possesses enough to make anyone happy: a pedigree dog, a beautiful house on the water’s edge, an immaculate outfit carefully chosen to look his best wandering through an empty park on a gloriously sunny public holiday. He lives in one of the most beautiful towns of a wonderfully progressive country, yet he cannot raise his head to say hello to a fellow human being.
A quarter of an hour later he had nothing but scorn for the old lady as she greeted him. Maybe she’s right about the nature of mankind. I know someone who would implore her not to give up on us. And she hasn’t. The bread roll she offered me was one of three she had procured via a social arrangement, whereby she takes possession of the food which remains unsold at the end of the day. The other two bread rolls lay next to the benches on the hill. She had left them there along with something to drink. The two bodies, cocooned on their respective berths, were still sleeping and yet to discover their good fortune. Meanwhile, an immaculately dressed man brushed the earth from the paws of his dog before returning inside, away from the sunshine.