13. The Poisoning Survivor Who Slid Down Hills
Updated: May 11
If I asked you to tell me about a person in your life who you have deeply admired, does one come readily to mind?
Often in my most difficult times, I think of a little old lady I met several decades ago who was swindled, cast out, and narrowly escaped death yet remained ever cheerful and loving to all.
I had just moved to a small town in the Bay of Plenty on the understanding that we were the first Baha’i’s to live there. This was a real privilege back in those days when our membership was small. So it was with some surprise that I indirectly learned about Edith (not her real name), an elderly Baha’i woman who had been there for some length of time; such a 'forgettable' woman to outward seeming that her presence there was not even registered.
Although she seemed just the typical idea of a ‘little old lady’, my questioning quickly dispelled that idea. Clearly unused to anyone taking much interest in her life, her enthusiasm to share became more understandable when I learned about the isolation of being a farmer’s wife, with little access to transport or off-farm social life at that time.
Edith told me that she and her husband had raised their children on a prosperous dairy farm. It was on a dusty back road which, in the 70’s, received its fair share of hippies, hitch hikers and backpackers, as was quite common at that time. So it was in this context that she and her husband offered bed and board to a youngish man with the hospitality typical of our farming communities, on the understanding that he would help with various chores around the farm. And so Edith met her first Baha’i.
Both Edith and her husband came from reserved, fundamentalist Christian families, yet her spirit of natural friendliness and curiosity caused her to take a liking to this new man as he shared the fundamentals of a new religion that satisfied many of the aspects of Christ’s return that Edith's life-long religious training had given her.
How is it possible, I would later ask myself, for a ‘nice’ lady, raised in a staunchly fundamentalist family, to recognise the still relatively unknown personage of Baha’u’llah on the mere say-so of some unknown itinerant?
I suppose he may have shared a few pamphlets with her (unlikely that an itinerant would carry many books), but whatever the exact circumstances, Edith quickly came to recognise in this new Teaching the very one she had been waiting for.
Unfortunately the pronouncement of a new religion did not sit at all well with some members of her Christian family, who proceeded to find various ways of making her life difficult. Gradually a sense of religiously-inspired antagonism developed on their part.
Time passed and her husband aged, so he sold the farm and the couple moved to a lovely home in the centre of town with tennis court, large gardens and out-buildings. It was when he died that her problems really began.
It appeared that the daughter, who strongly opposed her mother’s new ‘satanic’ beliefs, now resented that the wealth from the farm did not immediately come her own way. It was at this point that Edith began to grow increasingly ill with symptoms that research could only attribute to tutu poisoning. This well-known danger in the area was produced as a result of bees feeding on honeydew that contained poison from native tutu bushes. This, she sadly confided, was a ‘treat’ her daughter had been regularly feeding her.
Whilst the poisoning didn’t succeed in killing her, there followed a long slow recovery after which her speech remained slightly slurred and her once very bright and inquiring mind could become noticeably fuzzy at times. Other symptoms remained with her for life.
Eventually, recognising her powerlessness and being under considerable pressure, Edith consented to leave her beautiful home which the daughter’s family promptly occupied, and instead she was moved into a small non-insulated shed at the back of the property. It was here that I would visit her and be appalled by rivers of condensation, caused by an un-flued gas heater, which ran down the walls and into her now mouldy bedding. I was also concerned by her dependence on preparing whatever sparse meals she consumed by means of a small and ineffective gas cooker which further contributed to the condensation problems, whilst the daughter supplied her own family from the large kitchen that once was Edith's.
Despite enduring the rejection of the daughter she had lovingly raised, and the cruel deception, theft, betrayal, and eventual loss of physical health that followed, Edith's faith remained unshaken. Ever cheerful and optimistic, and trusting that prayer was guiding her actions, Edith began to attend our small Bahai gatherings with great enthusiasm but little knowledge of any protocol (which is kept minimal anyway). Often she would be so carried away with the sheer happiness of our company that, in the middle of some deeply-felt prayer or reading, she would feel moved to spontaneously break in with some happy little story of her life, some uplifting inspiration.
At this point Edith's son - absent until now - suddenly appeared on the scene, to take responsibility for her tragic circumstances, producing plans from which he proceeded to build a beautiful strikingly modern home on a hill overlooking the township. I saw a certain justice in this, because now Edith was able, like the Queen she was in my eyes, to gaze out from her garden to survey the world stretching out across the valley below to where her lost home remained. I felt a real satisfaction that at last she was being cared for just as her Christian husband would have wished.
I can tell you all this only because Edith trusted me enough to confide a situation that was heartbreaking for her to acknowledge, since she never spoke of her family members with anything other than warm and genuine love.
At this unexpected point I was obliged to move to a new town where I proceeded to develop a painful and incurable illness myself, during which I have found many occasions to remember Edith; her quiet long-suffering and courage under duress, and the way she overlooked the hurtful shortcomings of her family. Throughout all these adversities she retained a spirit of radiant acquiescence to the will of God, and a steadfast devotion to what others considered an obscure new religion.
My last visit with Edith was on a Baha’i Holy Day that she had offered to host in her beautiful new home. When the time came that all the friends had arrived and were seated, there was no sign of our hostess. On further investigation we eventually came upon her in the excited company of the small neighbourhood children whom she clearly adored; together they were exuberantly sliding down a nearby hillside on old sheets of cardboard, Edith's eyes sparkling with joy in her ‘best’ clothes, wispy white hair flying, and shrieking with the sheer delight and happiness of it all.
So that’s my story of the most inspirational person I ever met, and since I was not well enough to attend her funeral, I am grateful for the opportunity to offer this, my personal tribute to her, and to all those humble and faceless Baha’i’s who, over the years have lived lives of quiet dedication to Baha’u’llah in the face of hidden hardship.
“Be thou not unhappy; the tempest of sorrow shall pass; regret will not last; disappointment will vanish; the fire of the love of God will become enkindled, and the thorns and briars of sadness and despondency will be consumed! Be thou happy; rest thou assured upon the favors of Baha, so that uncertainty and hesitation may become non-existent and the invisible outpourings descend upon the arena of being!” - Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdul-Baha Abbas, p.557