Mum never seems to learn from experience, like other people.
Most women who have to walk along the streets of Los Angeles try not to do so at night. They walk briskly, alert to their environment, their purse clutched tightly under one arm. They hold their car keys in their hand as they were taught in self-defense class, with one key inserted between two fingers to serve as a weapon if necessary.
Mum walks anywhere anytime. She may be out late at a Bible study, so when she gets back to her apartment all the parking spaces along her street are filled and she may have to park blocks away and walk back.
She walks briskly, totally unaware of her environment, her purse and several plastic sacks of donations to a garage sale or thrift shop dangling from her arm. If she passes a man lounging against a building or a transient sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk, she gives them a vague smile.
If she hadn't been mugged, violently, so several bones were broken as her purse was stolen, one could say, "She doesn't know any better." Assault has a way of educating the rest of us. Pain makes us fearful and theft makes us angry and invasion sharpens our senses so we can never again park where we were attacked or note a person who resembles our perpetrator without becoming guarded and uneasy.
I have never seen this tendency in Mum. Con men have confused her out of money from the church coffers when they came in off the street and asked for change. Women who posed as down-and-outers have used her sympathy to "borrow" money which they pass on to shadowy boyfriends in the wings. She never learns.
She never lets a bad experience harden her or teach her suspicion or prejudice or become an excuse for not meeting the next--maybe legitimate--need to come along. I don't think she even consciously works to overcome the natural withdrawal the rest of us feel when betrayed or used or insulted. Each experience is separate. Each person is unique to her.
"'Wise as a serpent!'" I keep telling her. "You've got 'harmless as a dove' down pat. Now you need to work on being 'wise as a serpent.'"
But I know it's useless.
I could understand how a 71-year old woman could be naive if she had led a sheltered life, in the bosom of her family and youth group. I could understand how a large, powerful, assertive woman, armed with muscle and anger, could walk where she pleased without fear and dare the muggers to make her day. I could understand how a woman who is thick-skinned and impervious to slights and abuse could "take it" day after day.
But by what short circuit in her emotional make-up, by what missing chromosome in her DNA is Mum deeply sensitive without learning from experience how risky it is to open up to strangers on a bus, to take in homeless women, to reach out to hurting men? What is it that makes her rise from betrayal to answer the door again? To seek out another refugee, still exhausted from the process of getting the last one integrated into society? To take on another motherless young person and build faith and self-confidence into her over the months?
"I've done my share," she is supposed to say. Like the rest of us, she is supposed to weary and become disillusioned by ingratitude and insatiable demands. "I'll toss off a token get-well card or a very small donation now and then--or even drive her one way if it isn't too far and if it's only this once. But it's really someone else's turn."
What is it that prevents her from learning not to care?
(Written in 1986.)
Today I am thankful for memories.