The first time I met Charles, he was coming into work at the end of the day to clean the store. He was friendly and very social. While I could understand him well, I noticed that the people around me never knew what he was saying. Curious.
One day, my boss asked him to sign his time card, and he placed an 'X' on the line. I learned that day that Charles was illiterate. He shared some of the hardships he had endured throughout his life.
This struck a deep cord in me, a person with a deep attachment to books and reading and writing. I was young, and I had never met someone who couldn't read or write, but in that moment I understood why his speech and language ability was so impaired. In that moment, I learned about life. I learned that life isn't fair and that fellow humans endure sufferings I had only just begun to understand.
In the midst of his challenges, Charles was always happy. He moved me with his bright spirit, never cross or withholding. I often wondered how I'd behave with the same limitations. And then, I thought of my great grandmother.
She wasn't illiterate, but she never learned English having come from Italy and living amongst her own in an Italian neighborhood in Chicago. She never wrote in Italian because there was no one to write home to. When she tried to learn English by speaking to the other women in the mill where she worked, they made fun of her of her accent. She quit, feeling humiliated. Thinking of that now makes me sad. I wish I had been there to encourage her to defend herself and persevere.
Both of these situations have a common foundation. Charles had a loving wife and children; my great grandmother had a loving husband and children who adored her. In the end, they had family to buoy them when the world was tough, unjust, and cruel. Perhaps hearing about my great grandmother's life prepared me to open my heart to Charles, not judge him or turn away from him when he wanted company and conversation.
The world hasn't changed much since the days of my great grandmother. There are ever increasing numbers of people who can't speak English entering our country, and the NAAL (National Assessment of Adult Literacy) estimate that 14% of US residents have extreme difficulty with reading and written comprehension. These individuals can be considered illiterate.
On this Christmas day, when the memory of Charles entered my consciousness, I am grateful for having known him and having been moved by his story and example of happiness in the midst of struggle. God bless you, Charles, wherever you are.
My mom made a traditional Italian meal tonight, one that would have meant a day's journey by mule in Italy for my great grandmother in order to buy the necessary ingredients. We spoke of our ancestors at dinner as a way to keep their spirit alive, a spirit of hope, strength, wisdom, and love.
As the new year approaches, may you be embraced by the love and support of family, hold on to hope amidst pain, and grow in love, compassion, and understanding for your fellow brothers and sisters who share your world.Denise Chicoine
Founder, Soulful Life, LLC