by Nanda Wubs-Huizenga
Christine: To most, she was eccentric, reclusive, and different – to me she was my friend.
In the summer of 2000, our family moved to our new home near Chesterville. Shortly after we moved there, I often noticed a small, older lady shuffling up and down the road past our farm. She wore dirty, baggy clothing, had on rubber boots, and a baseball cap plunked on top of her head. She kept her gaze to the ground as if searching, and would occasionally stop to pick up something of interest. I knew her home was a few doors down, because it stood out from the rest of the neighbours’ tidy, well manicured properties. The house was old, run-down, and the grass was mowed haphazardly, with logs piled here and there, and small seedling trees sprouting through thick green mounds of uncut lawn. Chickens paraded around in clusters, picking their way through the grassy maze. Little did I know that each seedling had a purpose, each log was piled there for a reason, and that each chicken had a name that suited its personality. Christine’s yard was a story board of her love for nature and animals.
My heart went out to her, and I gradually began to feel the Lord’s gentle nudge to meet. After some time had passed, I finally had a chance when, driving past her house, I noticed she was out for a summer stroll. As I pulled over, she cautiously approached the car. I immediately noticed her un-kept hair, dirty teeth, and a smell that invaded my space. In spite of this, I introduced myself as her new neighbour and said, “why don’t you stop by for a coffee sometime?” She was so excited by the invitation, it really surprised me. Her elation reminded me of a small child’s glee at getting a long awaited treat.
The next day she came for a visit, clutching a miniature jar of freshly picked flowers. She explained what each flower was, and it turned out that most of them were wild – what you and I would call weeds. Yet, she valued them and seemed to know the good qualities of each and how they were useful. She shared with me her love for her chickens, and would laugh hysterically when talking about ‘their sillies’. “Old Man Roosty was gonna have his head taken off one of these days because he was so bossy”, and Wee Cinnamon loved to be carried and treated like a little lady. She delighted in talking about her chickens as a Mother delights in talking about her children.
That summer was the start of a special friendship and a bond that grew between us. We found out that we both shared a faith in God and this was the glue that kept us together. As she slowly opened up to me, she soon became eager to share stories that had been tucked away. Each time she visited she would bring small gifts of “flowers”, trinkets, newspaper clippings, and occasionally a sampling of her baking. I learned things about her during those visits – She couldn’t stand to see things wasted and would scour neighbors’ recycling bins for discarded jars and containers that she would find useful. Paper was cut up for notepaper, newspapers and sticks were used to start a fire in the woodstove, and scraps of food were fed to the chickens. Nothing went to waste, both out of necessity and conviction.
Eventually Christine invited me to her home. I was hesitant to go inside as the rickety steps were splattered with chicken ‘residue’ and a terrible smell came from inside. Upon reaching the open door, I realized that the chickens were already waiting for us in the kitchen. Pots and pans littered the counter and some spilled over with half eaten food rotting in them. A lone table without chairs sat in the middle of the floor, covered in dirty newspapers and clippings of various plants that were put there to dry. Jackets, each one dirtier than the next, hung in row by the door. In the far room I noticed stacks of books covered every nook and cranny of the walls and floor. Christine failed to notice the look of shock on my face as we visited that day in the kitchen. I hid it well, because I could see that she really needed a friend to accept her as she was.
During the next couple of months, I began to put together the pieces of information she entrusted me with and found out that Christine was living on only $528/month. She explained that after her father died, she lost her mother five years later. Shortly afterwards, her only sibling had severed his ties with her and she was left to look after herself. Loneliness set in, leading to depression and irrational fears that made it difficult for her to work, let alone trust anyone or ask for help. Money soon ran out and she was forced to accept welfare, which was very degrading in her mind. She lost her dignity and self respect in the process and slipped further into a world of despair.
Realizing that Christine needed help, I eventually breached the subject with her. By that point, she trusted that I cared about her and really wanted her to see the doctor. He referred her to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed her and prescribed medication that really helped her. Within a few months she blossomed, and soon began to take more time to groom herself and keep her home tidy. In spite of this, her home was in dire need of repair. The roof leaked, the windows upstairs didn’t open, the wooden exterior doors were cracked, and the furnace was not insurable according to the insurance company.
Poverty had forced her to neglect her beloved home, and now it required the attention that it had been deprived of. Together, we went to Social Services to discuss Christine’s situation and apply for Ontario Disability Support. I will never forget the day she ran to my house with papers in hand – her application had been approved and, suddenly, her income would be doubled. Even though $1,100/month is not a lot to you and I, to Christine she thought she won the lottery! ODSP could not provide money for her home, but after some research, I was able to find three home-improvement grants that provided roof repairs, new doors, windows, and a furnace! Once the upgrades were done, she felt like a queen in her castle. Naturally, she began to take more pride in her home and so, the chickens came in… less often.
Christine and I were friends for about twelve years, until her death in 2009. Although her life was never perfect, our friendship was one of the most beautiful things I have ever experienced. In her own unique, eccentric way, she gave me all that she had to give: herself. Look around you, poverty is our neighbor, and today I encourage you to give yourself to those who may need you.
To the world, you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world.