In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked away in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us.
A bit more than halfway through my newspaper route, I approach Mrs. Baines’ house. A stark contrast to the surrounding snow, more hovel than house, years beyond paint, it is a monument to benign neglect. Today, like everyday except Sundays, I go up the mostly ignored sidewalk, navigate a rickety step, and enter the house through a door that miraculously still hangs on its jam.
“Here’s your paper,” I say. Taking it, she invites me to sit by her coal stove. A thick layer of coal dust covers everything inside and out the house, including Mrs. Baines, the quilt that wraps her, and a nearby stack of books.
As I carefully seat myself, she, with half-gloved hands, removes the lid from a box of chocolates. I take a caramel, one of the few that remain. Between bites I tell what I learned in school today and recount tidbits gleaned about town.
In this town, Mrs. Baines is herself a frequently recounted tidbit. Story has it that when she was a girl, her mother, a fastidious type, made she and her sister clean house—daily! A white glove test was a routine part of the ordeal. Moreover, when the girls were not cleaning house, their mother made them wear frilly dresses, pinafores, and curled hair. Rejecting obsessive cleanliness and fashion, Mrs. Baines vowed to never ever clean again and fashion would be damned when on her own. As the filthy house and poorly adorned Mrs. Baines readily attest, vow kept.
Few folks here have anything to do with Mrs. Baines. Some cross the street as she approaches. Downtown shopkeepers eagerly accept the cash she pays for food and supplies but avoid making eye contact and small talk with her. At the café, her bathing schedule is a frequent topic of conversation and source of bets. On Sundays, at church, my dad’s church, she sits alone. Never missing a service, she winks, smiles or nods at me when dad hits a good note in his sermons.
One Sunday, the church pew Mrs. Baines normally occupies is vacant. For those who care to notice, no smoke wafts from her chimney. Her barking dog attracts the attention of a neighbor, who never bothers making her acquaintance. Four days later, a funeral service honors the life of Mrs. Baines. Five people attend. I am one.
What should I make of this?
From my vantage point, the values—the ones I am learning in school, church, little league, and scouts—which my hometown espouses as normalcy, are readily apparent in Mrs. Baines (except cleanliness). She is a hardworking, self-sufficient, non-demanding, tax-paying resident. A customer who pays me promptly at collection time for the Des Moines Tribune newspapers I deliver her each day. A friend and confidante, she freely opens her home and offers meager resources to me. Smoking, drinking, or late night carousing are not her vices. Moreover, we faithfully attend the same church, sing the same hymns, listen to the same sermons, make our tithes, and worship the same God.
Against the town’s customs and mores, few lives here have been lived more admirably than the one Mrs. Baines lived. I know. I deliver newspapers to the folks who live here. Their incessant demands, excessive greed and debts, hidden vices, and pompous religiosity are as self-evident to me as hers were not. True to herself, she keeps her vow, puts on no airs. Slights, indignities, and transgressions she greets with forgiveness. Mrs. Baines is much more than a disheveled, tragic recluse. This is apparent to me because in my life she is welcome. Others do not welcome her, so they miss her beauty.
At Mrs. Baines’ funeral, I reflect that the simple pine casket containing her body is an apt testament to her soulful dignity. The value of her moral life lived amidst a relative normalcy is the unspoken eulogy of this day. Its implicit benediction is a powerful reminder that ostracizing someone makes us less than the person whom we ignore.
The great meaning of Mrs. Baines’ life—a life largely ignored—is that when we embrace people whom we do not understand and confront our prejudices about them we embrace our own frailties, inabilities and fears. Doing so makes us bigger, more complete. This is the lesson Mrs. Baines taught me. I suspect the same is true for all the attendees at her funeral
Of the characters in my Heartland, Mrs. Baines is certainly one of the most colorful and unforgettable. I honor her by being open to people I encounter regardless of whether they are in sync, step, or fashion—clean or not. Each has something to offer, each comes into my life for a reason. I strive to welcome them when they do. This is my vow.
Note: This is the seventh post in the Heartland Series. Please click the follow button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.