For every day that I have lived, I have never known what it means to be poor, to beg for food or money so that we can pay the rent. My heart is young. I am like most people I know.
But my grandmother was not. Her heart knows the tribulations of life. She had to watch my mother and her sister suffer when there was not enough to eat. She is not like anyone I know. Her heart is many years older and her soul more beautiful for it. When we suffer, our heart gains wisdom and our souls find the beauty in life. We take pleasure in what little we have because we know that our next chance to feel such happiness may be distant. Our hearts wrinkle as we age, like the skin that tells time’s tale. We feel the passing of time and see it too. With each wrinkle there is a beautiful story, but there is also pain.
I see the stories marked on her skin, the lines in her face more prominent now than before. Her hands shake and she walks slightly hunched over, in shoes she has borrowed from me. I had too many – more than I need. An umbrella used as a cane in one hand, she seems weaker now. Her life is older than mine but also wiser in the truths of life. Still, she goes on, even though she is tired. Even though it takes her longer to cross the street now, it doesn’t stop her from venturing outside.
Her heart has felt more in her eighty years than I could know in my innocence. She knows what it means to be humble and modesty has served her well throughout her years. She has enough money now from my mother, but, still, she collects as though she were living in her uncertain past, where every little she could get mattered. Every little thing could mean the difference between having enough and having too little. She is a collector of trash, even now and it doesn’t matter what we say. It doesn’t matter if we tell her that we have everything we need – everything we want, even. If she sees something, she will take it, even if it does not fit. She takes because it might not be there tomorrow, but also to give something to us. Her heart is big because of her suffering; it has made her who she is. And her pride has been hurt too many times, whittled down and eroded such that she has no use for it anymore.
She does this because she remembers a day when she had nothing. When people queued for bread. When bath water was shared. Even though life has changed and the youth today don’t know the poverty of her past in their own lives, she still lives in that past. A past where everything had value and nothing was thrown out. A past where the smallest thing could mean the difference between today and tomorrow.
I will never know what it is to be kind when you have nothing, to help when you have too little, even for yourself. But my grandmother, she lives as though she may be poor again at any moment and for that she must be ready. She cannot leave her past behind. The times she had to forge something from nothing. The times she had to make every penny count. The times she would work endless hours to earn only just enough for her family to survive, and survive that day.
I am forever grateful and indebted to her pain and her humility: if she had not done as she did, I would not be here. My mother would not be here. And all because my grandmother did enough – just enough – such that we could all know life. My grandmother cannot let go of this past, perhaps because it meant that she and her children lived. The poverty is fixed in her mind. I see the callous of her hands from the labor that made her soul. But as hard as she struggled, so, too, did her heart grow bigger, engorged by her pain and puffy from the strain. She will never look down upon a beggar because she was once him. She will never complain about that poor man who can’t afford his rent because she was once him. She will never gossip about the man who sleeps on benches because even though she hadn’t been him, she easily could have been with two children in tow and a negligent husband.
She knew what it meant to have a beautiful soul. She didn’t live for God, even though she believed. She lived because she had children to feed and this fueled her purpose. Her heart was for them. Her love kept her able and her perseverance led them to my life. The life I live having more than I need. I don’t worry every day. I don’t cry myself to sleep at night because I don’t know where the next meal will come from. But, because I don’t know this pain, I know that I don’t know what it is to truly feel. I don’t know what it is to be you. To not care about those stares you get, because your purpose is bigger. To ignore the wagging tongues, because your need is greater. You have children to feed, clothe and send to school so that they will live a better life. But even then, there is no guarantee or them or for you. You stay that poor woman who needed the kindness of strangers and now you give kindness unto others because you know what it is like. You were once them. And they are now you.
You are not like other people. Your heart is big because of what you have been through. It takes courage to beg. A courage most of us never have to know. To put aside all of your pride and sit on the streets or ask that shop keeper if he has anything to spare. They all know who she is by now. And although they know her by sight, they don’t know what I know or who I am. They don’t know that I am here because of her and because they gave her food on a whim. I am always thankful for her heart that made her toil. Thankful for her love that gave my mother enough food to eat and live and bring me into this world. Thankful to the generosity I have always felt from her even though I have more than I need and she once had nothing. Maybe they talk when her back is turned. But to my mother who loved her, her heart is worth more than any morsel of food or spare penny wrought from a kind stranger’s hand. And, to me, who loves my mother, I am always thankful.