Among Eudora Welty’s stories is one called “A Visit of Charity”. It’s about a fourteen year old Campfire Girl named Marian who, dressed in a red coat and white cap and bearing a potted plant, pays a visit to an Old Ladies Home upon a wintry day. The place itself, made of whitewashed brick and reflecting “the winter sunlight like a block of ice” must have added to the chill. The nurse who opened the door was also dressed in white. “I’m a Campfire Girl,” said Marian. “I have to pay a visit to some old lady.” The visit was worth three points (toward a merit badge?), which will prove to have been the only motivation Marian had to visit the place. The nurse asked if she were acquainted with any specific residents. “With any old ladies?” stammered Marian. “No – that is, any of them will do.” The nurse took her down a corridor to one of the rooms and knocked, saying, “There are two in each room.” “Two what?” asked Marian as the nurse pushed her through the open door. Suddenly Marian was alone with two old women.
One was feeble but up and about. She wore “a terrible, square smile . . . on her bony face.” With a claw like hand she plucked off Marian’s hat. “Did you come to be our little girl for awhile?” she asked - and then snatched the potted plant. The other woman was lying flat in bed, irritable. “Stinkweeds,” she said, referring to the plant. And so it went, with the one being cloyingly sweet and the other increasingly cranky over every remark her roommate made. The tension in the room made Marian go rigid.
The irritable bed-ridden women summoned Marian to her side. “Come here!” Marian trembled. (The other woman explained: “She’s mad because it’s her birthday.”) “It’s not my birthday,” screamed the woman in bed, “ . . . no one knows when that is but myself and will you please be quiet . . . or I’ll go straight out of my mind!” Marian “wondered about her . . . for a moment as though there was nothing else in the world to wonder about.” It was the first time she had ever experienced anything like this. Then the old face in the pillow slowly collapsed. “Soft whimpers came out of the small open mouth . . . she sounded like -- a little lamb.” Surprised and embarrassed, Marian turned to the other woman and said, “She’s crying!”
And with that she jumped up, grabbed her cap and, eluding the other lady’s grasp, ran from the room, down the hall, past the nurse and out into the cold air. “Wait for me!” she shouted to a passing bus and jumped on; then sat down and took a bite of an apple she had hidden for herself.
Even back in the early Church some Christians preferred the company of pleasant folk over the apparently shabby ones. I myself once visited a nursing home almost every day where I had an aged relative and I must admit, I sometimes bridled at the thought because of the condition of so many of its residents – and the forecast it gave me of my own inevitable physical and mental deterioration. The New Testament Letter of James tells us to get over that; that a treasure awaits us at the margins of polite society – a treasure Marian almost acquired when she said, “She’s crying.”
And what is that treasure? An awakening of our closed minds, of our muted senses and consequently of our hearts, of a sense of solidarity with people in pain, indeed an awareness of our own pain, the loss of that numbness we characterize as equilibrium. In other words, an awakening of our humanity! Marian didn’t stay long enough to fully experience such an awakening but hopefully one day she’ll return to that Old Ladies Home with something more than a merit badge in mind.