The School Girl and Mr. Purdy

Dear Readers, through the years, it has become apparent to me that a good exercise for our memory and for our character is to take a moment to reflect on our past. One does not have to be old to benefit from this. We have all had at one time or more, experiences that have left an indelible mark on the formation of our adult humanness. The seeds of courage started growing long ago.

The following story tells us about one young girl and her courage:

The courage to be free

Courage comes in many forms

As I look out the tiny window on the fifth floor of my efficiency apartment on the corner of 42nd and Tudor in Manhattan, my attention suddenly goes to the owner of a white and red cane maneuvering her way across the busy street.

Watching with total amazement as the blind women side steps obstacle after obstacle placed on her path, my mind races back to the past and another blind person named Mr. Purdy and a little nine-year-old schoolgirl.

McDonough County Seat Courthouse in Macomb, Illinois

The year was 1950. I lived in the small midwestern town of Macomb, Illinois. I had just started fourth grade and was very busy trying to learn multiplication tables when I first met Mr. Purdy.  In those days, school children walked to and from school each day and if they didn’t live too far from the school, they also walked home for lunch . . . I was one of those lucky ones.  It was while returning to school after lunch that I first saw the old man in the dirty white coat working his way down the street with his cane swishing from side to side searching frantically for danger. I stood at the corner motionless and stared.

Could I muster up the courage?

This was my first experience of seeing a blind person!  Finally, reaching the corner and close enough to hear my breath and rapid heartbeat, he barked out, “Well, are you going to help me cross the street or just stand there?” 

My first thought was to turn and run as fast as I could. 

Should I help him cross the street?

I asked, “What do you want me to do?” 

“Take my arm,” he snapped, “. . . and try to get me across the street without getting me run over.”

So, I took his arm and after looking twice in each direction, safely led him across the street to the other side.  Reaching the other corner unscratched, Mr. Purdy grunted something at me and immediately began working his way down Lafayette Street.

Oh boy, now I’m in real trouble!
I’m in trouble now!

All at once, I remembered the time of day and my original destination, and a new fear fell upon me as I ran toward St. Paul’s school.  In the distance, I could see the impatient glare of Sr. Mary Andre waiting on the top step of the entrance to the doorway leading inside with her arms folded and foot tapping. Now I was really scared!

During recess that afternoon I inquired among my friends about their knowledge of Mr. Purdy. The unanimous consensus: was that he was mean and hated children and that I would be smart to stay completely out of his way.  However, something inside told me not to be afraid of him. 

Frozen in Fear with My Heart Pounding

The next day after lunch, I found myself sitting in the grass at the same corner, my eyes searching the distance for the short, robust figure with the dark glasses and white cane.

Suddenly, at the last possible minute allowed for this lunch hour adventure, he came into view. I remained there frozen with fear waiting for him to acknowledge my presence. This time he spoke before reaching the corner and said, “Huh, you again!” Although terrified, I took a slow deep breath, listened with courage to the  voice in my heart, and answered, “Good afternoon, My Purdy, may I help you cross the street?”

Seeds of courage

The adventure with Mr. Purdy continued throughout my fourth-grade school year and well into my final years at St. Paul’s Elementary School. It was not a daily event because sometimes he was there and other times he didn’t show up. But the true impact of the experience has been carried with me my entire life. And perhaps this is the message for me…the importance of remembering past events and where they directed me.  But there were other messages. . .

Retrospections of a Childhood

Other Examples of Kindness, Empathy, and Love

Many virtues and lessons come from our childhood in ways that we sometimes don’t notice or remember until we are much older. When I attended a Catholic Elementary School in the small town of Macomb, Illinois, in 1946, many guidelines and filters for life were taught in school, unlike today.

The first of course, the Ten Commandments and the Eight Beatitudes. Both showing examples of behavior and the do’s and dont’s for life! We not only had to be able to read and write these rules of behavior, but we also had to memorize them. Now this might seem archaic, in today’s secular world, but these principles and tenants gave us a framework upon which, if we chose to, we could build our lives. It gave us direction and a sense of security – if we followed these ideas – we would be okay in the end.

Doing good every day

On top of the, “Do List” was Kindness and Gratitude as virtues to put into practice. On the first Friday of each month, we began the day at school by giving examples of how we implemented the virtues into our daily life. We had to go to the front of the classroom one at a time and explain how we accomplished the task.

The school was not the only place where I saw examples of kindness, the second place, and one of my favorites, was five blocks away from the school building and over the railroad tracks to Grandmary’s house! This was the home of my paternal grandparents, Joseph and Mary, thus the name Grandmary, which was given to her upon my birth and later spoken by everyone in town. I mentioned before that here is where I saw living examples of kindness, empathy, and lots of love. Now I will share with you a few simple examples.

A Very Important Task at Hand

One day walking from school to Grandmary’s house, when I was about nine or ten years old, showed me an example of caring and empathy that I also carry with me.

As I walked up the steps to their very large front porch, I saw Mr. Hainline, an older man who sometimes did small jobs for my grandparents. Seeing me, he smiled and said, “Hello, Kay.” but at the same moment, he seemed to be very concentrated on the task at hand.

I replied, “Hello Mr. Hainline.” and quickly entered the front door to the open arms of Grandmary. After a wonderful hug, I asked what Mr. Hainline was doing with twine, scissors, and a large tin dish.

Then she explained, “Mr Hainline is such a good person, Kay, because it is Springtime, and he is cutting twine to put out for the birds to make their nests so they can lay eggs.”

“Isn’t that kind of him?” she asked. I agreed.

Years later, I realized she was creating jobs for Mr. Hainline who had very little money but a lot of pride. Life was tough following the end of WWII and it was hard to find jobs, but Grandmary did her part!

Another of Life’s Lessons Remembered in Retrospection

Operator, please call 57 for a cab!

Old blue taxi
Taxi from the 1940s

My Grandmary’s kindness and empathy for others was not just directed to one person. She found a way to help many souls in all different ways. Often, the ‘help’ offered was based on the perception of what people needed, which was not always what was helpful to them. But, somehow, Grandmary had this other kind of compassion – it was based on observing what a person really needed, and always with an attitude of respecting the individual. She never once made them feel beholding to her for the help she was giving. She always found a way to empower them while working to lift them up.

This was also the case with Tom, one of the cab drivers in town, whom Grandmary hired to deliver newspapers to her house on Sundays from the Smokehouse, the local cigar and newspaper store in town. She asked him to deliver the weekend papers from the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and the St. Louis Post Dispatch. Sometimes he would have to make more than one trip to the store for a late edition. She paid him generously for his hard work on his day off and always spoke highly of him and the sacrifice he made for her.

Fifty years later, at a High School reunion, I spoke to his daughter, Betty, who was in the class behind mine. I mentioned those years and she told me her father used to tell the family he didn’t know what he would do if it wasn’t for people like Grandmary. Her little acts of kindness may have put food on their table on his one day of the week “not working!”

Empathy, love, and kindness

Now, as I continue to the last and most significant (for me) example of empathy, love, and kindness, I want to remind all who read these illustrations of love that, as said at the beginning, if we are willing to think back through our lives, we have similar human memories. We just need to stop and remember.

As we remember these glimpses of kindness, they guide our journey forward. Our lives are examples to those young ones who follow us. They watch us, seeking guidance, direction, and hope for a better world. What impressions will our actions and thoughts leave in the hearts and minds of those little ones?

Retrospective Review of a Young Life and the Gifts Received

What one can learn from a knock at the door.

Grandma's back porch
Back porch off the kitchen at Grandmary’s

It was in the middle 1940s at the time and Grandmary and I were in her kitchen when we heard a soft knock at the screen door off the kitchen. She told me to stay put and went to answer the knock but I peeked around the corner anyway and there stood a man who asked if she had any odd jobs.

This was a time after WWII when tramps (that was the name we gave to the homeless back then) riding the railroad cars would suddenly appear looking for work. I listened as Grandmary told the man she had a bad shoulder and she worried about all the leaves gathering on her front porch because she could not sweep them. She asked if he would mind helping her out and he agreed.

Have you eaten?

But before he could turn around with the broom in hand, she asked, “Oh, by the way, have you eaten? I was just getting ready to throw out some food left over from yesterday.” He said he had not.

While he worked on the front porch, Grandmary asked me to help her set a little table on the back porch as she put a fresh steak from the refrigerator in a skillet and fried it adding vegetables, a salad, and a large glass of milk.

She quickly put a tablecloth on the small table with a plate of her best china full of food and silverware. Then she told me to come inside and let the nice man eat in peace. I also saw her tuck a five-dollar bill under the plate. As we left the porch, I asked about her shoulder because she had never mentioned to anyone that it was a problem.

She had no reply.

Later, when we checked, the man was gone, and the tablecloth was left folded – dishes, silverware, and glass placed in order. I learned that the “tramps,” would ride box cars up and down the tracks to many towns, homeless and looking for work. It seems they passed on information about different towns, whom to trust, and whom to avoid.

I believe Grandmary was one of the good ones on their list! 

A retrospective look at the past

These memories are not the end but areinstead, the beginning of the Retrospective Examination of the deep gratitude for my gifts. Family members and strangers gave me these gifts. Looking to the past, I can see how they placed me on a trajectory of love and kindness, and each example is a nudge to keep me walking this path. And, of course, at times, I may have lost my way, but the sun always arrives and a new day with opportunities.. So, dear readers, it’s up to us to choose.

Thanks for listening!

About the Author(s)

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I have 80 years plus on this earth with lots of experiences and stories to share with readers who are present on our planet Earth at the same time. Everything we writers share here is about life. Joys and difficulties, happiness and hope. Human life in all its expressions and wonder!