39. The Poisoning Survivor Who Slid Down Hills
If I asked you to tell me about one person in your life whom you deeply admire, does someone come readily to mind? Would that person be a famous figure, or a special teacher, or even a parent?
In my own life I have had the fortune to meet with the Maori Queen, the Dalai Lama, and also the prime ministers of two different countries plus several ‘knights’, M.P.s and the like, but if I had to choose the one person who has inspired me most throughout the years, I would name one little old lady whom I met several decades ago, one who was defiled, swindled, poisoned and narrowly escaped death yet remained eternally cheerful and sweet-natured throughout.
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, and 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 an elderly Baha’i woman who had been there for some length of time, and whom I will rename Edith for the sake of her privacy; such a forgettable woman to outward seeming that her presence there was not even recorded.
I don’t recall the details of that first meeting because on first appearance she was just that idea of a typical ‘little old lady’, but circumstances would shortly prove her to be anything but such a forgettable figure. And it also became apparent that she wasn’t a difficult person to get to know at all; in fact I had the clear impression that she was unused to anyone taking as much interest in her life as I did.
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 farm in the Bay of Plenty. 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 that was typical of our farming communities, on the understanding that he would help with various chores around the farm. And it was here that Edith met her first Baha’i.
Both Edith and her husband came from quite committed, reserved and fundamentalist Christian families, and so perhaps it was due to the loneliness and isolation of a farmer’s wife and her spirit of natural friendliness and curiosity that she took a liking to this new man.
They began to spend more time together as, in response to her endless curiosity, he shared the fundamentals of this new religion, one that seemed to satisfy so many of the aspects of Christ’s return that Edith’s early 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 recall that at the time of our meeting his name was mentioned but since I would never met him personally I didn’t retain it, although I’d love to meet him today. 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 extremely difficult, and gradually a real 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 began to worsen. It appeared that the daughter, who strongly opposed her mother’s new ‘satanic’ beliefs, now resented that all the wealth from the farm did not immediately come her own way.
At this point, Edith began to grow increasingly ill with symptoms that, as she later researched, could only be attributed to tutu poisoning derived from toxic honey, a well-known danger in the area and produced as a result of bees feeding on honeydew containing poison from native tutu bushes. This, she sadly confided, was a ‘treat’ her daughter had been regularly feeding her.
The poisoning didn’t succeed in killing her, but there followed a long slow recovery after which her speech remained slightly slurred and her once very bright and enquiring 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 uninsulated shed at the back of the property.
It was here that I would visit her and be appalled by the rivers of condensation - caused by an un-flued gas heater - which ran down the walls and into her moulding 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.
Such was her faith in God and her trust that prayer was guiding her actions that, despite enduring the rejection of the daughter she had lovingly raised, and the cruel deception, theft, betrayal, and eventual loss of her physical health, Edith remained ever cheerful and optimistic.
She would attend our small Bahai gatherings with great enthusiasm but little knowledge of any protocol (which is kept minimal anyway), and 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, or other sudden inspiration.
At this unexpected point Edith’s son - totally absent until now - suddenly appeared on the scene, to take over her tragic circumstances with actual plans from which he proceeded to build a beautiful large strikingly modern home on a hill overlooking the township.
There was a certain irony for me because once it was built Edith was able, like the Queen she was in my eyes, to gaze out from her garden and survey her world, down across the valley below to where her lost home remained, but now with a sense of real satisfaction that she was now 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.
It was at that point that I was obliged to move to a new town where I proceeded to develop a long and painful illness myself, during which there were many occasions when I had reason to remember Edith, her quiet long-suffering and courage under duress, and her devotion to what others considered an obscure new religion, one vehemently opposed by her family and about which she had only second-hand stories, yet throughout all these adversities she retained a spirit of radiant acquiescence to the will of God.
My last hours with Edith were 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 neighbouring children whom she clearly adored; together they were exuberantly sliding down a nearby hillside on old sheets of cardboard, Edith 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