Picture of Kindness
Here is a “picture” of my mother one spring morning telling someone on the street downstairs to wait, then stuffing our bread basket with fruit and a home-made queso fresco sandwich. My dad and I have just walked into the kitchen and wonder who the provisions are for. They’re for the man eating garbage downstairs (meaning: from the can at the bottom of the communal chute compartment connected to our neighbors’ kitchens and ours), my mom explains, while lowering our stuffed bread basket with a rope from the kitchen window of our third-floor apartment in Santa Marina Norte, my childhood neighborhood in the port city of Callao, Peru.
My dad tells her to stop and let the man go on about his business. He is worried the neighbors will see her feeding him and think the man is a relative or something. My mom sucks her teeth and rolls her chocolate eyes at my dad, at once dismayed and amused, then flippantly says a line my dad could have easily lip-synched: Que me importa lo que piense fulano, sultano o mengano, hombre? (Gosh, what does it matter to me what Tom, Dick and Harry might think?) These are my parents.
And that’s me, the small boy standing beside my mother; I must have been nine or ten and had to reach on tiptoes over our window sill to see what the man looked like. My mom tells him to take the food and stop eating refuse or he’ll get sick (And then? What will happen to you, sir?). The man takes her admonition humbly, no different than a concerned doctor’s instructions, apologetic, smiles, thanks her and bows slightly, then stuffs the fruit in the pockets of his ragged black suit and grabs the sandwich so my mom can retrieve our bread basket.
That’s the man downstairs: sunburned, salt and pepper hair and mustache, strong face stressed by thinness. I remember thinking from that distance that he seemed surprisingly well-groomed as he turned to us one last time and raised his sandwich, as one who acknowledges a toast or a consolation prize.
And here’s me as I turn inside to look at my dad, catching a glint of admiration in his small eyes before he looks down, nods and smiles in recognition, I think, of the futility of his initial reaction.
This “picture of kindness” is the first in a year-long series intended to honor Shojushin’in Sama, the model of embracement (shoju) and spiritual mother of the Shinnyo-en sangha, in the year of the centennial anniversary of her birth. They are meant as gifts: for her and those who also inspired and shared them with me, and for anyone who reads them. In sharing these gifts, these small acts of kindness performed, witnessed and honored by ordinary people, may we continue the momentum of their gentle ripples.