Kindness and shelter in time of need

Acting was rewarding, but in my heart I knew teaching was a more worthwhile and stable livelihood, especially when my wife and I had one child and another on the way.

One evening, as we talked enviously about our friends' travels, we determined that if we were ever to see anything other than our own little part of the world, we'd have to do it then.

Serendipitously, we were both offered handsome fees for a two-day acting job - in Ireland. So, in the summer of 1961, my wife, our 1-year-old daughter, and I landed in Eire. We bought bicycles in Limerick and set off on a 1,500-mile journey, drying diapers on our handlebars.

One morning, Blarney Castle's great dark form seemed to spring out of the lush, glowing green Irish mist. That was reason enough to turn off the road and join the line of visitors waiting to climb the castle's ancient, narrow stairs.

Once outside on the battlements, the guide held our ankles as we grabbed the iron support bars and leaned out to kiss the stone that would give us all the "gift o' the gab."

But to me, the most interesting part of the castle was the great hall and kitchen where our enthusiastic and puckish guide led us.

In extravagant terms that silenced any doubts anyone might have had that he hadn't kissed the stone, the guide told us of the great banquets that had been held in the hall. He told us about how the powerful had celebrated Celtic conquests and about the nights of revelry and song that had taken place under the smoky black beams.

I was enthralled until I began to really look around. I suddenly blurted out: "I don't mean to question your accuracy, but I simply don't see how a kitchen this size could possibly have been large enough to prepare meals for such a great number of people."

His answer silenced me: "That's probably because you're standing in the fireplace!"

In those days, few Americans backpacked or biked around Britain and Ireland, and even fewer did it with an infant. Often as we arrived in a village, someone would be in the street waving us in for "a cuppa." We were always delighted for a rest and chat.

After biking through Ireland, Wales, and England, we stopped for two weeks in Edinburgh.

When we visited Holyrood House, we didn't know tickets were required to go upstairs to the royal apartments. We were looking at the first-floor exhibits when the guide invited everyone to "step this way to view the royal apartments. Please have your tickets ready."

I was abashed and explained if we had enough money, I'd have happily paid, but we were traveling by bicycles and couldn't afford even the modest cost.

The man waved to us to hurry along.

"I'm sorry, sir," I said. "I honestly didn't know tickets were required, and we don't have any."

He smiled, touched my shoulder and simply said: "Come along!"

Many miles later, night fell, and the map showed we were miles from shelter. I saw a light, thought of our little daughter and my wife's fatigue. I swallowed my pride.

A tiny, white-haired lady opened the door cautiously. Joseph at the inn came to mind.

"Ma'am, I'm sorry to bother you. Is there anywhere near that does bed and breakfast?"

"No, ye'll not find one for miles."

"I see," I said. Maybe my voice trembled. "Could you find room for my wife and little daughter? Don't mind about me, I have a bedroll and can sleep outside."

"Fetch them" she said kindly. "The kettle's on." She fed us, gave us all beds, cuddling our daughter, Kimberly, as her own.

In the morning, as we gathered our packs and started to set off, I offered money for our food and lodging.

She refused. "You and your wife and bairn have brought joy to this house. It's I who should pay you." Then she added, "As you travel on, remember this: When ye have nowhere to go, find the poorest house. They will always take ye in, because they know what it is to need."

Since we bought our home many years ago, that lady's kindness and wise words have resounded often. I've lost count of how many people we have sheltered - sometimes for a few days, sometimes for months. One needn't have the poorest house, but even if it is, it becomes a rich one when shared with someone in need.

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