Somehow I was coerced into collecting for a major charity last week. When I say 'coerced', what really happened was that some quietly-spoken young woman phoned, and politely asked if I would door-knock in my street. In reality, I was held to ransom by my own conscience. This particular charity is a very deserving charity, and one which funds projects that benefit the health of millions of Australians. We're not talking a fund for visually-impaired seeing eye dogs or anything.
I set off, wearing the supplied badge that proclaimed me as a bonafide collector. I spoke to many friendly people who all disappeared back into their homes for some small change. Our neighbour in the big house next to us donated $10. Towards the end, I rang the bell at one of the fanciest houses in our street.
I should clarify that our street is an old street in this city. Although we aren't far from the city centre, this street was once part of a farm. Eventually, around the turn of the century, the farm was subdivided and the area was developed. There are many old houses - some renovated and lovely, and some in states of disrepair. There are also some more modern, but plain, houses. There are no architect-designed mansions. The most glamorous houses are some modern houses built to replicate the look of the older houses (I call them replicants), except they are twice the size with none of the character of the older homes.
I buzzed the doorbell at one of these flashy 'replicants'. A woman came to the door, and I explained the reason for my visit. She frowned and shook her head at me. "No, we're only donating to cancer at the moment", she replied.
"Sure, no worries", I reassured her.
"I mean, you can't give to everything, can you?", she persisted, a little tetchily.
"Yeah, that's fine, " I answered, "Thanks anyway".
I thought very little of what she'd said. I figured perhaps her family had recently given a large amount to cancer research. And what she said made some sense - I supposed she was right that you can't donate to every worthwhile cause.
But then I crossed the road to a small, derelict-looking home. The roof sagged. The yard was overgrown. As I passed a towel-covered deck chair on the front patio, there was an unmistakeable reek of urine. I surmised that an elderly person lived here - probably alone. It was evident that funds were tight. I considered not knocking at all, thinking it best not to bother this pensioner with requests for money they obviously didn't have to spare.
I decided that it would be patronising to make this decision myself. I decided to rap on the door and let the occupant decide about any donation.
A quavery voice called from the depths of the house - "Who is it?"
"It's Jellyhead, your neighbour from number 17, " I bellowed through the door. "I'm collecting for the National Heart Foundation".
"Hang on!" came the quavery voice, this time a little nearer. The door rattled as bolts were drawn back and the knob turned. The smell of cigarette smoke hit me almost before I glimpsed the wizened old lady. Her face was weary and folded with age, and her hair hung around her cheeks in clumps, like dreadlocks. Shadowing her face and hair was a black hood, giving her an extraordinary and very witch-like appearance.
The old lady smiled at me. "I'm sure I can find tuppence to give you", she remarked cheerily, shuffling off into the sooty darkness of her home. I stood at the door, amazed. I had expected to be turned away. Yet this ancient crone, who evidently had so little herself, was willing to donate to charity.
Returning with a twenty-cent piece, the old lady croaked, "It's not much, but here you go."
"Thank you!", I replied, meaning it with all my heart. "Just imagine if everyone gave twenty cents - how much money would be raised". (for our population - approximately 3.5 million dollars)
"Well, that's true!" the old lady cackled gaily.
We said goodbye, and I walked away across the acrid-smelling porch. My mind was racing, and my emotions were whirling and eddying. I felt that something profound had just happened with this cigarette-puffing, odd old lady.
Generosity is a small old woman on my street.