Of Wool and Wisdom

I need a little light.

Things on this blog have gotten heavy.  Let’s continue down the path to a story of taking what you have, gathering your small but useful resources and benefiting yourself, your family, and your community. It’s a story of great bravery, extreme courage, and steadfast determination.

And it begins with a little old lady in a tweed skirt and her folding dinner tray.

It was 1995 and I was studying English Literature at the University of Central England. During break a few friends and I decided to rent a car and drive through Wales. We mapped out various back roads, eager to hike the most remote areas.

Being as we were from the United States, Germany, Sweden, and Norway, none of us felt comfortable driving. Thank goodness for the Swedes’ love of cars. He drove while we navigated poorly. The large white words on the road, all in Welsh, did little to help us find our way. Still, we pushed forward and around and right and left and so on.

“What is that in the road?” Asked Sweden.

Norway sat in the front and he said it appeared to be some sort of animal. Germany and I stared at the map upside down, laughed at the lack of squiggly lines pinpointing where we were, and said nothing. We figured it was another sheep. There had been only us, rocks, and sheep for quite a while.

“No wait, it’s a person!” Norway exclaimed. After a few moments he added, “It’s a little old lady!”

Of course all of us became intrigued, leaning forward as we inched toward her.   Sweden only knew one speed when he drove: fast. But now, as we inched toward the woman, he had slowed down to a crawl.

It was, indeed, an old woman. She was, of all places, sitting right in the middle of the road.

She sat on a wooden folding chair wearing a grey tweed skirt and wool coat, buttoned to the chin, with a small knit hat resting on her head. Her hands were closed on her lap as if awaiting a sermon and her ankles were crossed, encased in proper hosiery, and they were finished off with well-worn brown loafers. Next to her was a metal folding dinner tray and on it was a small metal box.

Sweden came to a stop and the four of us regarded the one of her.

Her lips moved slightly in what one might call a smile and after what seemed like many hours we realized she would not be getting up.  When Sweden put the car in park, the four of us exited the car in unison and silently walked over.

“’Allo,” she said politely, “there’s a toll for passin here. Twelve pence, please”

She placed a hand on the box protectively and awaited our next move. She was a librarian, a grandmother, a churchgoer, a sewing circle member, a quilter… she was many things. But a toll booth? This we did not expect.

We looked at one another and back to the woman. We dug in our pockets, turned them inside out, realized we were a bit short, and looked back at the car as if it would magically produce some change or perhaps blink lights twice as our queue to run, jump in, and crash through this steel-willed barricade.

“It’s not enough,” said Sweden once we had handed him all of our loose change. Twelve pence wasn’t much, but we did not have it.   His hand, which held eight pence, extended toward the woman. In his most apologetic voice he pleaded, “I’m sorry, this is all we have.”

The woman remained unmoved.

We must have looked comical as we dove headfirst into the rental car, digging around for the missing four pence while cursing in four languages. We whispered plans to confront her; after all, we reasoned, she must be a con-artist, a scammer, a local beggar, and we were sure she was wanted by the local authorities. True, none of us had ever seen a criminal in such a well-starched outfit, but that was most likely the brilliance of her façade.

We considered our options.  The road was quite narrow and there was a stone wall on one side and a bit of a drop off on the other, so going around was not an option.  Going through- well, that one was out for obvious reasons.  We were poor; not crazy.

By a stroke of luck, we found the four pence.  We walked over together, paid the woman, and ignored the million questions hanging on our lips.

She reached into her pocket, pulled out a small key, and unlocked the small metal box.  After counting the money twice, she dropped it into the box and stood up.  She smoothed her coat and folded her chair. She took the box with her to the side of the road and she leaned it up against the stone wall. She returned with the box and did the same thing with the table. She stood on the side of the road, the box held with both hands in front of her, and said only, “’Ave a nice day.”

We stood there unsure and then hustled to our car, jumped in, and off we sped. Sweden was happy to be going fast again. Germany and I watched through the back window as she carried her small table back to the center of the road, set it up, and then took the box with her to get the chair. She set it up next to the table, set down the box, smoothed her coat, and sat down.

So curious, this moment.

We had seen maybe two vehicles on that particular road. Certainly the community wouldn’t expect an old woman to sit in the road for such a small amount of money. Perhaps she lived nearby and took it upon herself. Perhaps she collected the money and took it to a local charity. Maybe she drank it away or gambled it or stuffed a mattress with it. Perhaps she was crazy and hid it very well other than her habit of sitting in the road and collecting loose change from motorists.

The possibilities were endless. We couldn’t wait to drive back on the same road so that we could see her again; but alas, it was not to be.  We were not the best navigators and we never again passed her or any other elderly woman in tweed collecting tolls.

The story of this woman, this proper and orderly woman, is absolutely true. All of it happened in the span of five, maybe ten, minutes.  And since we were never given more information, I have let every moment become magnified in my memory.

The old woman in this story has become, in my mind, a representative of the calm and persistent qualities one needs to turn a sometimes isolated opportunity into some sort of purpose. She is a reminder that not all things are grand, not all things are exciting, and not all things make sense.  It is difficult, sometimes, to do something monotonous and droning. It can be aggravating to stick to something with such a small result. I feel it is in the gifted person’s nature to complicate a project, to expand all parameters, and to accelerate the speed at which we move.

My little toll lady story reminds me, and in turn I remind my gifted children, that sometimes sticking to one thing, one slow and ordinary thing, can have big results.

After all, if only ten cars pass a day and she collected from all of them, steadfast in her stance and brave in her placement, she would have over four hundred pounds, or over six hundred U.S. dollars, in just one year!  And that, truth be told, is worthy of her small and unwavering effort.

“Your hand is never the worse for doing its own work.”  ~ Welsh Proverb

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