(This past week I have been thinking a lot about connection, and especially where things from the past enter our present while we are unaware. I found a piece I had started a while back, and reshaped it to suffice for July and August, when my inspiration well was running dry. In honour of Sister Ambrose RSJ I have called this ‘The Glossy Red Box’. )
After lunch in Grade Three, Sister Ambrose used to pass around the ‘mission box’. It was a small red cardboard box with a slot in the top. On the front there was a picture of an appealing black baby, and something written along the lines of ‘Save a little baby so it can grow up to hear the Good News’. The box was passed up and down the rows so those children who had money could choose to donate it to the mission cause.
Sister Ambrose was a very young Irish nun, very popular with us with her intriguing Irish accent, and we were eager to meet her approval. She would count the money – mainly pennies and ha’pennies because we were in an area where nobody had much – and tell us how much we had raised. I longed to be one of the children who could put money in that box, but in our household every penny was spoken for. The children who put the money in, had it left over from their lunch money or pocket money. Mum had to feed and clothe five of us and there was literally no ‘slack’. If we ever bought lunch, it was on a Monday when there was no bread left, and the money had to be sorted out so we each had exactly the right amount to order our sandwich.
We seemed to just accept that this was the way things were, and most of our friends were in pretty much the same circumstances. Many years had to pass before we realized how hard that was for our parents – Mum going without so much herself in her twenties and early thirties to make sure we all had what we needed. Dad, like so many other fathers, worked three jobs, until his asthma got so bad he had to cut it down to two. Very few of ‘our’ mothers went out to work in the early post war years, but it seemed accepted that the ‘New Australian’ kids’ mothers did. Their lives were parallel to ours rather than integrated with them, at that time – and there was little understanding of how difficult it was for them to start all over again in a new country, often not even of their choosing.
One morning a friend of mine left her lunch money home. Mum was on tuck shop duty and lent her the shilling she needed for a cheese sandwich. A few days later, I think her mother probably must have returned it wrapped in a piece of paper and told me to put it in my pocket. That is the only explanation I can have for the miracle that occurred around that time in the Grade Three after-lunch classroom.
As the lovely little mission box came along the row on that day, I felt something in my pocket. I can’t remember any process of thinking or wondering how that came to be or what I should do with it. I knew exactly what it was for. I unwrapped it and slipped that shilling in through the slot, certain that I too had now saved a little baby who could learn about Jesus. I felt very satisfied with that outcome. I had a taste of feeling that I was virtuous, and could consider myself as someone who ‘gave to the missions’. I never thought about the hypothetical baby again.
Some time later I heard Mum say to her sister that she was surprised that my friend’s mother had not returned the shilling. She said she didn’t think she would be like that. Any doubts or realization that stirred a little in my mind were quickly outweighed by the remembered satisfaction, and I never said a word. Sixty five years later I can still taste the pleasure of that find in my pocket, but although I have an entirely different opinion about missions and saving babies, I can trace back to that time my lasting awareness of and connection to the people of a wider world.
Last week my husband and I looked at our annual receipt from the Fred Hollows foundation. We counted up the number of people to whom we had been able to give a sight restoring operation and there it was again: gladness that I had money to give, the powerful feeling of agency, of being able to make a difference to people whose lives intersect invisibly with mine. I know I carry with me the privilege of post-colonial injustice, but nonetheless I still give my few dollars, and guess that the people who get the operations won’t care that the donor is a bit flawed, and might even have a small sense of being loved through our mysterious connection.
This time, this is the place of grace where I take off my shoes and am grateful for the wonderful complexities of this life, where nothing is ever entirely wasted.
Ah, so evocative of grade 3 and 4 at a little country catholic school, obviously not much different from the city ones! I could smell the smells of little kids en masse and pencils, chalk and schoolroom books and taste the cheese and vegemite sandwiches as I read it, Pauline. And I remember that little box, the face of the toddler on it and the feelings it evoked then – and now.
TAs they say in the movies, thanks for the memories – and for the trail of thinking that has followed.
Just beautiful. I could see that red box being passed down and the sandwiches, and Nan and Grandpa. Bought a tear to my eye. xx Daughter Chris