It was a Saturday near Christmas, and a collection box occupied a downtown street corner. As a group of us boys gathered nearby, a friend warned facetiously, "Look out! Here comes Old Lucy Wilson!" We fled, torn between wanting to know more about her as well as torment her. We delighted in spreading rumors about this strange, unorthodox woman.
A childless widow, Lucy Wilson lived on a remote farm and only ventured into town occasionally for supplies. She was a mystery, an enigma. One rumor was that she'd bring farm animals into her dilapidated house during the cold of winter, even using her coat or blankets to keep a newborn calf alive. Standing on her horse-drawn wagon, her black-coated figure silhouetted against the sky made her appear foreboding and scary. Mother had told me that Lucy Wilson was quite poor.
That Saturday afternoon near Christmas, I found myself standing behind her in the grocery store. Noticing the meagerness of her list (especially at Christmas) I was filled with curiosity. Her tired and calloused hands searched her coat for the few dollars necessary to pay for her groceries. She then scooped the few coins of her change into a corner of a handkerchief, tied it into a single knot, pushed it into her coat pocket and quietly left the store.
I paid for my candy and rushed outside to join my friends near the collection box. Little did I know the life lesson I was about to learn. With her homemade grocery bag in hand, Old Lucy Wilson shuffled up to the box and pulled the flowered handkerchief out of her pocket. Without fanfare, she dumped the contents of her handkerchief into the box. Then, as if on the heels of a silent prayer, she turned and trudged down the street.
I don't know how poor Lucy Wilson really was. I don't know how much she actually gave on that Saturday near Christmas. I don't know what her gift did for anyone else. But I do know what it did for me.
That Lucy Wilson taught me a lesson in generosity is to belabor the obvious. More importantly, she taught me how to regard others. Even as a boy, I began to see the evil of intolerance and prejudice. I started to perceive how rumors and judgments diminish both the victim and perpetrator. My suspicions of Lucy Wilson — now transformed into an appreciation for her — also gave me a greater understanding of my human nature. Now, instead of condemning her for taking barn animals into her home, I realized how she might treat another human being who needed shelter. If this earth-angel would surrender her coat and blanket to a newborn calf, I knew what she'd do if she saw anyone shivering in the cold.
Today, nearly 60 years from that Saturday near Christmas, I still recall Lucy Wilson, with the manure coating on her overshoes and the ragged coat that smelled of the barn. Her dark, humble eyes that peered out from beneath the green woolen scarf still provoke a sense of guilt. I can still see her disfigured fingers and knotted hankie — the coins tumbling from her hand. With embarrassment and contrition, I remember the rumors we boys entertained about her and the injustices she suffered as a result of my behavior.
And I'm humbled by the teachings taught to me that Saturday near Christmas by this woman of grace, Lucy Wilson.
© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers