The value of good deeds

Heat radiated up from the concrete footpath through the soles of my sandals and onto my feet. I knew I should have worn rubber-soled sandshoes for the extra protection but they covered too much surface area on top and did not breathe.

All morning on the radio at home there were reports of bushfires throughout country Victoria. Even the Dandenongs were under threat.

After breakfast, I looked through the kitchen window over the tops of half built houses to the edge of the horizon. In the gaps between I imagined I could see the glow of fire in the distance, or at least the smoke.

I could smell smoke. And not just the residue of the burned toast from breakfast, nor of my father’s cigarettes in the hallway. This was a different type of smoke. This smoke stuck in your nose and left you feeling you were in danger.

There was nothing to worry about in built up areas, my brother said. Fire would not travel into built up areas.

Why ever not?

Hadn’t he heard of the Great Fire of London, the one Samuel Pepys wrote about in his diary, the one where more than half of the city of London went up in smoke.

‘But that was centuries ago,’ my brother said when I reminded him of the story. ‘And the houses were made of wood and set cheek by jowl. It’s not like that today.’

Maybe not, I thought to myself but there were other dangers closer to home.

I wanted to walk on the shady side of the street but by the middle of the day with the sun immediately overhead there was no shade, only the relentless yellow orb blazing down.

Most of the year I loved the summer time. The freedom of movement it offered. The long periods of daylight and the summer holidays. But here we were two weeks before school went back and I found myself dreading the thought of more heat.

If only the promised cool change would come and I could stop worrying about going up in smoke.

Death by fire was not a death I could think about for long and my thoughts ran on to Mrs White in the old people’s home. Mrs White, a woman in her eighties whom I had chosen to visit one day after the parish priest told my mother a good way to get your daughters from worrying about things at home is to get them out there doing good deeds.

‘They can help other people and why not start where you work, at the old people’s home.’

We did not grace older people with honoraria such as ‘senior citizen’ or the elderly in those days. They were simply ‘old people’ and with the label went all other insults imaginable, the sense of being past it. Of no further relevance.

Irrelevant people like Mrs White, who told me she had no family left as she had never had children of her own and her nieces and nephews were all spread throughout Australia and had no time for the likes of her.

It made me wonder in the first instance about the cruelty of these people who could so neglect their elderly aunt and then about Mrs White herself.

I was no judge of character then, though I thought it best to trust my instincts and to go for the person in the ward who best represented someone I could help.

I imagined a friendly warm person on the receiving end of my ministrations, but Mrs White, who looked for all the world as though she would be gentle, turned out to be bitter and cantankerous and demanding.

Once I chose her as my target each week, the one I should go back to visit again and again, I was trapped.

I decided to ignore her taciturn ways and make the most of my visits as though I were like my namesake Saint Elisabeth of Hungary who cared for the sick and the poor and who sought nothing in return.

I tried to figure out what it was Father Brackyn, the parish priest, had imagined might work so well for me in this process and how it might take my mind off the worries at home with my father raging and drunk in his corner of the house.

Beyond Farm Road, the bitumen pathway turned to grass and it was not so hot on the soles of my feet there, though in parts the ground was lumpy and I adjusted the rhythm of my walking to take in the occasional unexpected rise and fall of the ground.

You needed to walk the full length of the old people’s home when you approached from the seaside end of Warrigal Road and it took another ten minutes before I reached the entrance then down the sloping gravel path to the red brick building that housed the several old people who were waiting there to die, or so my brothers said.

My mother worked at the old people’s home as a cleaner mostly but one of her jobs was to go through the old people’s effects after they had died. She could then decide what should happen to these objects, spectacles, gloves, scarves, hats, dentures, the works, only when there was no family left to collect.

Even when there was family most did not want this stuff. It could go to the local opportunity shop or the rubbish bin but not before my mother had retrieved the things she might find useful at our place. Things we kids despised for their old people smell and feel and the sense of general uselessness attached to spectacles designed for one person’s eyes that could not be adjusted to suit my mother’s eyes and other personal objects, even wrist watches, which in those days were still considered precious but to us wearing another person’s watch – unless that person was close to you – felt like wearing someone else’s underwear.

Mrs White sat beside her bed dressed in her lacy pink matinee jacket over a thick white nightie too bulky for this weather.

Old people felt the cold and could easily get dehydrated in the heat my mother had told me often enough and although there was a large jug of water by Mrs White’s bedside and more than once during the course of my visit a nursing assistant came by to ask if she needed anything and tell her to keep up her fluids, she stayed cold.

Mrs White sipped only one or two drops before going back to her sour, dry non communicative stare that left me having to make all the conversation.

‘Did you bring my antacid powder?’ she asked after, exhausted with my solo conversation, I fell into silence. ‘The one I told you about.’

I had it there tucked away in my dress pocket. A blue and white roll of white tablets that I tried once before from my mother’s stash, De Witte’s antacid tablets, for her digestion.

Nothing agreed with Mrs White, neither food nor company, nor the efforts of a fifteen-year-old school girl who tried to bring a sparkle of sunshine into her world, not for Mrs White’s sake but for the girl’s own because as the parish priest had told my mother.

When things are most difficult it’s always good to look towards helping others more needy.

And so began the mantra of my life.