October 2022

Little acts of kindness

There are many living among us who quietly help others with no expectation of gratitude or reimbursement. Bronwyn Boehm reflects on the little acts of kindness that often go untold.

My parents were neither rich nor perfect. However, they found ways to help those who may have otherwise been denied opportunities in life – who would have remained excluded, remained them.

It was always a case of us and them in our small town, although in my youth I had no idea about the concept. Such things were rarely mentioned aloud, they didn’t need to be. Most people knew who belonged where in our microcosm of Australian society.

Although my family was quite poor, we were part of the us. Unfortunately, I suspect this was not based on anything other than the fact that we were fourth generation Australians of English and Irish heritage.

Regardless, our parents espoused and practised the values of kindness, compassion, hard work and spirituality. They were intelligent and hard working, intent on building a safe, happy and healthy life for our large family. They often struggled to make ends meet but most important of all, they loved us.

We had no radio, no television — life was very simple. There were highlights of course. My seventh birthday party – what a day that was! I had never dreamed of such indulgence just for me! My mother made green jelly ponds dotted with tiny sugar frogs and fairies on lily pads. There were fairy cakes and games and party hats and so much more. She invited the whole class to my ‘fairy’ party — even the boys, even Carol.

Well, when I say the whole class, it was actually quite a small group. Our school and indeed our town was tiny back then. I don’t think many boys accepted the invitation but I remember Carol came, mainly because of her beautiful birthday gift — a wooden jigsaw fairy puzzle. I was so enthralled with this that I can’t recall any other gifts I received that day. Of course, there weren’t many presents anyway — the children were not asked or expected to bring any.

Many years later, the significance of this dawned on me. I realised as a young girl that Carol looked different to me — but so did everyone else. After all, we are all unique, aren’t we? However, Carol was considered different and sometimes treated as a lesser person by others in the town — she was Aboriginal.

We lived in a modest house on the outskirts of town. But Carol’s family — the only Indigenous family in the district whose children went to school — lived on the other side of the river in a ‘shanty town’. A shambles of fibro cottages interspersed with corrugated-iron huts and lean-tos propped up with logs.

Us and them.

Many years later, with the benefit of age and experience, I often wondered about that fantastic birthday party. How had my mother the time or the money to prepare it all? More importantly, how (and why?) did Carol’s family buy that beautiful gift?

Was it wrong of my mother to include Carol in the invitation, knowing it may put financial and emotional pressure on her family? Or did she believe that excluding her would have been much, much worse.

Sadly, Carol is no longer with us — I would have liked to discuss this together as adults. In my heart, I’m glad she was there amongst us all. And I hope she felt my genuine gratitude when I opened her gift.

Poverty, race, lack of education, disability, gender — some of the factors that separate us — they were all there in our town. Its small size made the differences appear starker and harsher.

My mother went back to work when I was in my early teens. This had a threefold effect on our family: we moved into town; my father was able to build up his small business with the extra income; and my mother’s increased association and interest in our classmates’ well-being and development grew.

Mary was my best friend around that time. Funny, smart, kind, sometimes cheeky to the nuns, she was always interesting. The eldest of five girls, she lived in the housing commission part of town. Her mother was a cleaner and her father was an alcoholic. I was unaware of (or it didn’t matter?) the implications of her home situation. She was my friend and that was that.

We both did well at school, but Mary was an exceptional and avid reader. Even though there was no library in town, it never occurred to me to ask Mary how she got all those books. When a Gandalf print T-shirt arrived in the post one day with a set of weird-looking books about a ring, my mother told me they were for Mary. I remember being slightly miffed about the T-shirt and not at all concerned about the books. Eventually, Mary became a successful teacher and a published poet. I imagine her love of reading never left her.

There were other episodes, never discussed in front of us. My parents deeply respected the privacy and pride of the people they helped in their small ways.

There was Beverley, who grew up to become a popular and successful public speaker and university lecturer. However, Beverley’s parents decided she should leave school at 15 to get a job — only a select few ever stayed in school past the age of 16. My mother had a cup of tea and friendly chat with her mother. As Beverley told me many years later, she was tremendously grateful to my mother and had no idea how it was accomplished but, subsequently, she was allowed to finish high school.

And then there was Denise. No one talked much about why she left school at 13, or where she had gone. We knew her family was very poor, and it was hinted that her father was abusive. Rejoining us years later in senior school, Denise told us she had run away from home and ‘gone wild’.

She ended up in a home for unmarried mothers and, admitting tearfully, gave her baby up for adoption. I received this with some shock and deep sadness. But Denise had decided to put that all behind her. We all just got on with things – school, friends, sport, … life.

Many years later at a school reunion, Denise pulled me aside to thank me for my parents’ help. I had no idea what she was referring to. Apparently, yet again, my parents had quietly helped a classmate in a small and simple way. Denise had been offered an interview for a position with the bank. My mother knew that Denise would need some decent clothes that she couldn’t afford to buy. Through his small business, my father bought a woman’s uniform, my mother removed the logos, and Denise got the job.

Although Denise’s smart new interview clothes were of minor importance and Denise succeeded on her own merits, she assured me that this small kind act gave her the confidence she needed. Denise now heads up a city branch of that same bank.

Stories like these are not rare, though they often go untold. There are many living among us who quietly help others with no expectation of gratitude or reimbursement.

My parents were neither rich nor perfect. However, they found ways to help those who may have otherwise been denied opportunities in life – who would have remained excluded, remained them.

‘Little acts of kindness’ was an entry in The Good Oil 2021 Writers’ Award.

Bronwyn Boehm

Raised in regional Australia, Bronwyn Boehm has enjoyed a full life and several diverse careers in various towns and cities. In her retirement, she returned to a tiny coastal village. From mathematics to analysis (and children in between), writing has become her creative outlet and new passion.

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