Sunday August 29, 2004
Poverty is a word that covers a whole spectrum of human hardship, from the horrors of famine and starvation in the Third World—a matter of shame to the whole human race—to the hard times experienced by some people here in the West, who have an income that’s barely sufficient to keep body and soul together. I know that even here, if you look hard enough, you’ll find children who don’t have enough to eat, who suffer abuse and neglect, and that in extreme cases they will look at you with big, wide eyes from stretched, parchment skinned faces. Knowing that is one of the things that keeps me paying taxes with some degree of content. Even though I’m well aware that a huge proportion of our taxes is sqaundered on wasteful, silly things, on near-criminal incompetence, and on things of which I thoroughly disapprove, the system does deliver support and care at the bottom end where poverty begins. It’s a safety net and, as with all nets, there are holes through which it’s possible to slip. I’m not at all sure I could design, make and maintain a better one to catch all cases of misfortune.
And, I confess it, I’m well insulated in my comfortable little life. I live in a quiet, well-to-do rural community, I visit towns where there are jobs, of a kind, for everyone who wants one, and good or at least functioning social services for those who cannot work. I almost never rub shoulders with real poverty; it’s something I see on the TV, remote, and filtered by what some call compassion fatigue.
There are issues here that could be expanded infinitely, I know that. I’ve no intention of doing so here and now, and I’ve covered this ground as a foundation only, positioning myself as accurately as I am able so as to see my subject more clearly, and in an appropriate proportion.
Yesterday, at the car boot sale, situated right at the extreme end of a row, I came upon a small family grouping, a woman in her early thirties, two small girls, and a young pre-teen boy, standing between their battered, very old Volvo, and a table bearing the goods they hoped to sell. An empty tray with a couple of stray cabbage leaves showed that they’d managed to sell some garden produce and, of course, there may have been other items on their folding table that had found buyers. All that was left was a small clutter of worse-for-wear plastic toys, half-a-dozen children’s books, also well-worn, and a tidily-stacked pile of children’s clothing, not new, but clean and well presented. Nothing there for me. I had a need for a cabbage for our weekend meals but in their absence, no reason to reach for my coin purse at all.
So I don’t know exactly what it was about the group that caught my eye and fastened itself in my field of view. They were a handsome enough family, on the average side of handsome. All four of them stood straight and upright. That’s a little rare these days, I suppose, so it may have been that. The young woman was slim, with blonde hair and the kids were slim, too. Not skinny, but lean. Again, that’s something you don’t see too often these days.
I tried them with a smile, returned by the young woman, rather shyly. Now I think about it, the kids didn’t smile back. They acknowledged me with their eyes and that, I suppose, is what fastened the encounter in my mind, because there was a degree of defensive pride in them, particularly in the boy. They, like me, felt somewhat out of place, though for different reasons.
It was then that I noticed the quality about them that stood out over their situation. They were clean. Like their clothes, they were well-scrubbed. Hard up they were, plainly, but it was clear that they put a priority on cleanliness. I admire that. I do so admire those who face down poverty with a bar of soap.
So, reluctantly, I passed on. I wish they’d had a cabbage left that I could have bought. Or anything, really, because they gifted me with something to think about, a lasting memory of a chance encounter with human hope and pride. I value that, and all I could give in return was a smile.