Updated: May 12, 2020
Aunt Mary came from hardy stock. Born in Country Durham into a mining family, she grew up helping her mother feed and clothe six brothers who worked down the pits during the 1930s and '40s. I'm not sure how she met Uncle Bob, an engineer from Greenock in Scotland, but they married and headed for work in Southampton Docks. She was great friends with my mother and eventually became my Godmother.
Several years after retiring, 'Uncle' Bob had a yearning to go back north to his beloved Scotland, like a salmon swimming upstream. While they had enjoyed a 'comfortable' life together, they weren't rich, so ended up moving into a council block near the Clyde with a view of the former shipyards where Bob had served his apprenticeship.
Bob had found his resting place; the ever-industrious Mary was less settled.
She had always been a keen gardener, with the greenest of fingers that could cultivate orchids on ski slope. So moving into a tenement flat was very difficult for her. But growing up in the North East in pre-war years prepares you for anything.
Soon Mary was growing some pots outside her front door; a few red geraniums, a couple of chrysanthemums. Nothing fancy, but a splash of colour. The elderly gentlemen next door remarked upon this one day, so Mary took a cutting, potted it, and set it outside his front door too. She did the same for the widow on the other side. Soon, three front doors were framed with a splash or red and orange.
The postman mentioned this to housebound woman on another floor of the block, who sent him to Mary with a message asking if she'd pot a couple for her. Of course, she obliged, and while on her deliveries, deposited a couple of spare plants to the house next door.
She repeated those random acts of kindness many times over the ensuing months, then began to notice that other pots were appearing, on landings and stairwells that weren't on her 'rounds'.
The punch-line of this little family tale is that after three years that tenement block made it to the Scottish finals of Britain in Bloom, competing against some of the finest formal gardens north of the border. It didn't win (this is real life, not a Hollywood script), but that didn't matter. The competition was no more than recognition for a wonderful woman who brightened the lives of hundreds of friends, neighbours and strangers, expecting nothing in return for her kindness.
Looking back, I think Mary is the closest I ever came to meeting a saint. She gave constantly, and radiated a permanent glee in doing so. Her laughter was infectious, her love for others seemed boundless.
And she was the best personal example I have of why kindness in not only mutually beneficial, but is also a way of living meaningfully.
In an attempt to keep heads up in these turbulent times, following her example seems as good a place to start.
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