The wide arms of kindness

The two women who came to the door of our farmhouse had worked in the General Store. In their respective tenures there, they had been the confidantes of many of the local residents, listening to their troubles and successes, or sharing humorous anecdotes about themselves or those around them.

During the Canadian winter months, when the farmwork was at a low ebb, there were occasions when I would go into the store to find several people standing about, chatting or idly passing the time of day. They'd greet me with a nod and a ''good-day,'' offer a friendly remark and continue the conversation. At other times, a man might be sitting on the wooden stairs that led to the storage room above, or a woman might be leaning across the counter speaking earnestly to Ellen or Marie. On my arrival a silence would fall - not a discourteous silence, but a polite cessation of intimate talk. Ellen or Marie, whoever it was at the time, would turn the conversation to mundane topics or busy herself assisting me , and I knew that when I was gone the deep discussion would resume. As I paid for my purchases and gathered up the parcels, sometimes I'd notice on the counter a collection tin, the funds destined for some person in unfortunate circumstances.

Some months ago, the store was gutted by fire, and this central meeting place of the rural community was brought to an end. Soon after, the two women who had played such vital roles as confidantes in the store came unexpectedly to my home.

I realized they were still important links in the affairs of the community. I poured cups of tea and we sat at the kitchen table, making friendly conversation. But I suspected they had called for more positive reasons than sociability. In due course, they came to the point of their business.

''You know Billie who lived in the small white house by the weir?'' Ellen asked tentatively, deferring to the fact that my family origins do not extend back into the history of the area, and went on to explain that Billie was a man in his sixties who could neither read nor write and who had lost a limb in a farm machine accident. He had lived by himself in the old family farmhouse, which was his sole possession. Or it had been all that he owned until it had been destroyed by fire a few days ago. ''He could go to an old folks' home,'' Ellen said, ''but he'd not be happy there. He needs his independence. He wouldn't know what to do with himself without his dog and the woods to work in.''

Although I had never met Billie, I had heard stories of his ingenious life style, his successful methods of survival. Cooped up in a home for the elderly, he'd have nothing for which to live.

As I listened, I wondered how many similar tales these two women had heard when they worked in the General Store. What tragedies or miseries had been poured out to them on those occasions when I had walked in to do my shopping and a potent silence had fallen. Sometimes all that was needed from them was compassion and a few cheering words, but if Ellen or Marie divined that some kind of financial aid was required, they apparently set up their collection tin on the counter with a simple explanation on the wrapper. With caring hearts and sound common sense, they had acted as mediators between the distressed and the rest of the community. They were the objective eyes that saw through the emotional quandary and settled on the source of the trouble.

What then had Ellen and Marie, in their combined wisdom, considered to be the answer to Billie's story and how did they feel I could help? Marie told me that Billie was to have a new house. Already his nearest neighbours had volunteered their unpaid services to build it. Chain saws hummed in the woods, cutting timber, the local sawmill whined late into the off-hours of the evening, sawing the timber into planks. The foundation was being laid by a local contractor: ''There's always a bit of cement left over from another job.'' Other offers of a practical nature had been made: gifts of food, furniture, and clothing. Money in these parts is in shorter supply than time and resources.

''But there's some building materials and other things he needs that have to be purchased,'' Marie was saying, ''so we're taking a collection and setting up a fund. It'll be run by a committee that knows about money matters, so they'll take care of it for Billie.'' She showed me the list of contributors and for a moment I remembered the collection tin in the store. I realized that these women , with their experienced judgment, had considered the case worthy enough to reach out to farmhouses miles apart in order to make this collection. The list of contributors was long, but the donations were not large. I added my name and an equivalent amount. It didn't seem like much, but Marie and Ellen were grateful. With everyone giving whatever he could afford, all Billie's basic requirements would be covered.

When Ellen and Marie left, I sat thinking about their visit. Billie would be able to continue his life in the way that was important to him. In one sense he should be richer than before. He would see with what affection the community cared for its own.

Something else also occurred to me. Since moving into the area, we have been the beneficiaries of a number of kindnesses, and I'm constantly seeking to even up the balance of payments. Shortly after we arrived our neighbour had said, ''Nobody around here would ever let you starve.'' Ellen and Marie had confirmed that this day. We had been included in the circle of donors to help in Billie's crisis, and I did not doubt that it would work in our favour - or anyone else's - if a need arose. With or without the General Store, our community was intact and we were a part of it.

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