Gabby and the Old Woman: Loving our enemy
At the edge of the village stood the Poor House. When the village elders assigned Gabrielle to work there, she shuddered, as did many others just at the mention of this place. To give Gabby her due, she was a kindly young woman, full of life and energy, who quickly adjusted to her work in the rooms housing children with disabilities. Her initial dread swiftly evaporated. Gabby was soon won over by the smiles of these children, each of whom had suffered much, and by the calmness and compassion of the older staff. She became eager with her work and threw herself into it with enthusiasm and good intention.
But for Gabby, there were also irritants. She was relatively self aware, and at times, a rather forthright person, who wasted little time in putting names to her annoyances. There was the chaos and the noise. There was apparent obliviousness of the older staff to the chaos and noise. And then, there was the presence of the little ancient lady who came every day, sat in an advantageous corner, and rarely uttered a word. This woman’s presence crept to the top of Gabby’s “irritation list”, closely followed by the way Gabby was bothered by staff acceptance of this woman. They always treated her with deepest respect, except of course Seb, a recent arrival who worked outdoors.
Gabby did not like being watched as she worked. She was irritated by the few words that the old woman spoke and concluded she was rather demented. When something went wrong she would ask the woman if she had noticed what happened. The reply would usually be: “Uh. Huh.” If Gabby pushed for more information, the reply might again be: “Uh. Huh.” Then the old woman would smile, revealing a toothless mouth and ask: “Can you hear the music, dear?” There was certainly no music, just chaos and lots of children’s noise. When Gabby would ask other staff what the old woman was on about, they might reply: “She is such a dear thing,” or “She does no harm!” On a couple of occasions when Gabby was feeling very frustrated and struggling to keep her patience with a child, she would look in the direction of the old woman for support. The old woman would smile, and once or twice Gabby heard her say: “Just love them dear. They are the ‘Anawim’ (little ones of God).” But most often the response was: “Can you hear the music, dear?” Seb was the only staff member who would agree with Gabby’s assessment that the old woman was demented. “Real demented,” was Seb’s assessment.
Within herself, Gabby was often surprised at the level of anger she was feeling towards the old woman, and at how bits of this anger would actually pop out and land on the old woman’s head. On these occasions, which Gabby would afterwards regret, the old woman would just smile and go on about hearing music.
For Gabby, the aggravation escalated when things started to go missing, right in the room where the old woman sat. Gabby, with the support of Seb, was sure that the old woman was taking things. Gabby began to confront her. “Did you see who stole those cushions?” she asked, to which the smiling reply was: “Uh Huh.” The old woman must know who it was. Why would she not say! Then another time she confronted her more directly: “Did you take that box of fruit?” to which the same reply came: “Uh Huh.” When Gabby would go to other staff with her growing suspicion that the old woman was stealing things, they expressed their doubts and respond with: “I am sure she would not do anything like that!” Gabby, with the eager support of Seb, became very sure it was the old woman.
The last straw was when the Icon went missing. The Icon was the only thing of any real value in the whole of the Poor House, which after all was said and done, was a poor house. It had hung just opposite where the old woman had sat. After it’s disappearance, Gabby remembered that the old woman used to gaze upon it most of the day. “I wonder if she coveted it?” thought Gabby. So Gabby confronted her directly with the theft, to which the old woman simply replied: “Uh. Huh.” By this time, and with a strong sense of frustration with the old woman, Gabby could only hear these words as a confession. On this occasion she had noted that the old woman had not smiled. This time she held her ground and insisted that, even if other staff were not prepared to take action about this theft, that at the very least the old woman be removed. Seb fully supported her. Gabby felt a sense of relief when the old woman did not return. At least justice had been done!
It was only a week later that Gabby began to notice that things were going wrong for her. She was more acutely aware of the chaos and of the children’s noise. She found herself actually shouting at children and getting very angry with them. She also noticed that other staff were not as content and peaceful in their work. Seb had started to ignore her, and had even been rude to her. Gabby was also tiring quickly in her work and feeling a sense of heaviness taking hold of her body.
As the tired and now restless Gabby began to look inward, she encountered both anger and darkness. She did not like what she saw and what she felt. It was not long before she was missing days at work. Much of the time she felt overwhelmed. Staff seemed to cover for her at work and she was appreciative, though also puzzled, by their gentle care of her. Seb kept well away from her. She had expected a dismissal notice from the village elders due to her own slackness. But none came.
Then early one evening, Gabby felt she had no strength left for the journey home. Exhausted, she fell into a chair. It happened to be the chair that the old woman had used, and was still in its same place. The room darkened, and Gabby fell asleep. She began to dream. In her dream a figure, completely shrouded in a dark cloak, had crept into the room, and taking care that no one saw, lifted the Icon from its place on the wall. Gabby stood at the door and barred the way. She picked up the shrouded figure and flung the person out the door. But the shrouded figure again was in the room. Gabby flung the person out. This happen so many times, but always the shrouded figure would return.
Gabby gave up and went home, only to find the dark shrouded figure waiting for her in her room. No matter what she did, or what action she took to remove the person, the shrouded figure was always there. At the point at which Gabby became most afraid, she awoke. She was damp from perspiration, and for a while, to afraid to move. Eventually she regained enough strength to return home. For a number of weeks this dream returned as a reoccurring nightmare.
And then something happened that completely un-nerved Gabby. One of the Sheriff’s men had located the Icon at a stall at the village fair. The stall owner had purchased the item from a younger man. It came as quite a shock for Gabby that Seb had been questioned over this theft.
Gabby was mortified. Her world seemed to fall apart. She frantically searched the village for the old woman, but no one seemed to know where she had gone. And then, when Gabby had given up hope of finding her, the old woman turned-up at the Poor House sitting in her chair. Gabby fell on her knees before her, and begged for her forgiveness. Gabby, choking over her words, said: “You … … (sob) … knew who took the Icon, … (sob) … didn’t you?” The old woman smiled her toothless smiled and said: “Uh. Huh.” Gabby said: “Why didn’t you tell us that it was not you?” Again the old woman’s reply was: “Uh. Huh.” She reached out her thin bony hand and gently stroked Gabby’s arm. Gabby knew, very deep within, that she had been forgiven. Tears of relief began to flood.
How things changed for Gabby. The chaos lessened, as did the noise level. There was no more joyful sight for Gabby than the old woman sitting, gazing on the precious Icon. After the old woman would leave, Gabby would catch a moment in the chair, and do her own gazing.
It was about three weeks later, as the old woman was leaving, she gently pressed Gabby’s arm. “Always love the Anawim, Gabby. One day, you too will hear the music.” That evening, the old woman died.
For a time, Gabby grieved her loss. When she could catch a small moment, or just before she left for home, she would sit in the chair and gaze upon the Icon. She noticed tears that would gently fall on her cheeks. They were not tears of great sadness. They almost seemed happy tears.
One evening, after a rather chaotic and noisy day, she slipped into the chair to rest, to gaze upon the Icon, and to feel the happy tears falling on her cheeks. It was then she heard the music. It was music like she had never heard before. It transcended everything she had known. It enfolded all the joy and sadness she had ever experienced, along with all of the darkness and all of the light. It picked up the guilt she felt for the way she had treated the old woman and mingled it with the love for her that had grown over the last weeks of her life. It pressed restless spirit into a spirit of peace. It was only for a moment. But for Gabby, that moment was the only moment she felt she needed. She did not wish it to tarry, or yearn for its return. She knew in that instant that she would never be the same again.
It would not be accurate to end this story by suggesting that Gabby lived happily ever after. She did have times of happiness, but also times of great pain and sorrow. One could say of Gabby, however, that she lived much of her life as a gift to others. She lived a very long life.
If you had sought Gabby in her last years, when her body was too feeble for daily toil, you would have found her close by her precious Anawim, sitting in a corner, gazing upon an Icon. If she had been able to speak, which she was not due to a stroke, she would have said to you: “Can you hear the music, dear?”
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