The great thing about moving as much as I do is your load of belongings, by necessity, gets lighter and lighter. I am actually now down to about the same volume of “stuff” I had upon leaving home at 18 for my freshman year of college (save for my 350-plus vinyl-record collection!).
At the elderly house where I currently work I have just a small bedroom to myself (plus the upper half of one basement storage closet), making it tough to choose what sentimental old art work to hang on limited wall space.
What a lot of people don’t know is, along with my double degree from Ohio State in journalism and political science, I have a minor in art history and art’s always been important to me (my mom is a painter and sculptor, etc., who got her degree in fine arts in the ’50s from the University of Akron).
While others go for colors, design, structure, etc., my thing has always been for inspirational people. My long-loved biggest framed work is a print from the Detroit Institute of Arts of Vincent van Gogh’s self-portrait where he has on a straw hat and gives this incredibly soulful, intense stare—one that is directed straight at me whenever I sit in bed and watch TV!
Under a much smaller glass frame above my dresser is a collage of black-and-white portrait photos from newspaper clippings that I put together while still in NYC and writing from home inside my small Hell’s Kitchen studio.
In Manhattan, it used to hang above my computer desk next to an old kitchen plaque made in Ecuador I saved from when my dad died that reads, “Only one life, Twill soon be past, Only what’s done for Christ will last. ‘To me to live is Christ.’ ”
My favorite photo from the collage is of my great aunt Audrey when she was 90 years old and sitting in her rocking chair on the front porch of the Kanawha River cottage house she shared with her sister Nel in the small West Virginia mountain town of Sutton, pop. 1,100 (Editor’s Note: To see a color snapshot I took of Nel for this site, click on “Back Issues” going back to May 16, 2003).
Audrey, a long-time beauty salon owner in Philadelphia who was married to a prominent doctor, was a voluminous poet in her retirement years and her work was frequently published in the local paper, The Braxton Democrat-Central.
Accompanying this particular photo from 1991—in which she’s wearing a summery polka-dot skirt and a wide white French beret with a star pin anchoring it to her thick and wavy white hair—is her poem “The Vagabond Lover,” said to be dedicated “in memory of P.M., a war veteran of Dublin, Ireland.”
The love poem reads, in part, “When my street is draped in snow, I know where to go to find the lover, The Vagabond Lover, a man of the road. A man of the highway life. Old Rocky Bywatt, just a man of the road.
“He will keep you warm come a blizzard or storm. He will kiss away the tears and smooch away the years—that’s the lover, the man of the highway.
“You can love all your doctors, merchants or chiefs, but I will take the man of the road. His words might be compared to the prettiest bird. His voice echoes sweetest sounds ever heard. His kisses divine were sweeter than wine. His warm, soft and tender smile would thaw the frost of age and add new extinguishable fuel to a cold woman’s heart . . . ”
At the bottom of this morning’s obituary page in the Chicago Sun-Times’ was a face and name I immediately recognized. He is the same elderly black man from Kenya who I have in my framed collage next to Audrey and her Vagabond poem.
In the photo I clipped from the New York Times in 2004, Joseph Stephen Kimani Nganga Maruge is sitting on a dirt floor next to his hammock reading from the Bible. The cutline simply displays his quote, “Let them who want to make fun of me do it. I will continue to learn.”
I was so inspired by Maruge’s story that I wrote about him for my website. I’ve copied and pasted the article below but first, here’s the Associated Press obituary:
“A Kenyan man who was believed to be the world's oldest pupil has died at the age of 89, five years after he entered primary school so that he could learn to read the Bible, his family said Monday.
“Joseph Stephen Kimani Nganga Maruge died Friday at the Kariobangi Cheshire Home for the aged in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. He died of stomach cancer, said his granddaughter, Anne Maruge.
“Maruge accomplished his biggest goal — being able to read the Bible — but he remained shy of completing primary school.
"In the morning he used to wake up early to read the Bible before going to school," Anne Maruge, 18, told The Associated Press. "Even when he fell ill and you found him basking in the sun, often he would be reading the Bible."
“Maruge enrolled in primary school in the western Kenya town of Eldoret in January 2004 after the government decided to make primary school free. He wore a school boy's uniform — shorts, sweater and long socks — and walked to class hunched over with the aid of a cane and holding a book bag.
“The Guinness Book of World Records listed Maruge as the world's oldest primary school pupil.
“Survived by four children, 19 grandchildren and one great-grandchild, Maruge overcame great odds to attend school. All his belongings were stolen from his home in the Rift Valley during Kenya's bloody postelection violence in early 2008, forcing him to flee and live in a displacement camp with thousands of others who lost their homes in the bloodshed.
“He continued his studies despite the living conditions, and the Red Cross moved him into the old-age home in May 2008, Anne Maruge said. He stopped attending classes in January because of his illness.
" ‘When he became ill, he started to cry because he was not going to go to school,’ Anne Maruge said.
Maruge went to New York in 2005 to promote a global campaign to get more children into schools.
" ‘Liberty means going to school and learning,’ he said in an interview at that time. ‘You are never too old to learn.’
Here’s my write-up from 2004:
Tacked up on my bulletin board next to my desk is a black-and-white photograph clipped from the New York Times of an 84-year-old Kenyan man crouched down inside his mud hut residence, reading from his Bible using his index finger as a cursor.
The lanky, gray-bearded man, Kimani Nganga Maruge, has on a white dress shirt and blue suitcoat with matching trousers he's purposefully cut off above the knee to resemble the school uniforms worn by schoolchildren across his native country.
A cutline quote from him reads, "Let them who want to make fun of me do it. I will continue to learn."
The A-section feature profile on Maruge, saved in my files from April 2004, tells of a cane-carrying widower and great-grandfather who never spent a day in school as a youth, instead being directed by his father to mind the family's herd of livestock.
When the government of Kenya announced two years ago that it would offer free primary school education through grade 8, though, Maruge, to the shock of school officials, stood in line among a large group of six-year-olds at a neighborhood campus for enrollment in the first grade.
"There were those in his village who thought Mr. Maruge had gone mad when he began going off to school every morning dressed like a youngster," writes Marc Lacey in the Times piece. "But he had his defenders as well. 'He's not a madman,' said Chacha Abdala Juma, 74, a village elder and friend who himself finished second grade. 'I know him. He's not senile.' "
According to the article, Maruge's desire to learn to read was "to help him determine whether the preacher at his church is actually following the Bible." He wanted basic math skills to "allow him to better keep track of his money."
"At Kapkenduiywa Primary, Mr. Maruge is now a fixture," the article confirms. "He is frequently the first student to arrive in the morning, sometimes an hour early. During the school day, he plays the role of both student and teacher. He feels free to give advice to his classmates, reminding them frequently to study hard and listen to their parents. And he also regales the teachers, most of whom are half his age, with stories about Kenya's earlier days. 'We learn a lot from him,' said Mr. Chemworem, his teacher. 'He's like a history book.' "
At the end of each school day, Maruge walks back to the home he shares with his sister to tend to his small herd of sheep and his goats and chickens. "Later, he pulls out his books to study a bit before dinner," says the article. "He is the only student at the school who asks his teacher for homework."
God makes it clear in His Word that He will provide understanding to anyone who approaches His Book with a sincerely desirous and thirsty heart. He rewards those who diligently seek Him with pearls of “hidden” Bible truths.
Being reminded of Maruge today I could not help but think back to a story I wrote in 2003 about another similarly inspirational figure for me—Louie from Loudonville, Ohio (a 3,000-plus population village in northeastern Ohio where I went to junior high and high school).
Here is the piece—and I only wish I had a photo of him too!:
I'm currently working on a piece about the growth of paganism in our culture, but thought I'd fill the void with a Bible-related account from my sister, Rita.
In high school, starting at age 15, Rita worked an after-school job as a nurse's helper for a state-subsidized nursing home devoted to severely disabled people.
Her favorite resident soon became a guy in his 50s named Louie, who was both disabled and classified as "mentally retarded."
She tells their story as "buddies" like this: "Louie was born with severe birth defects, including a clubfoot, and very bad asthma. His mother shoved him a state institution and he never got schooling. She never visited him and practically disowned him. Pretty much she just treated him like crap.
"Louie had a hard time going to the bathroom, not only because of his foot but because he had chronic asthma. He would accidentally pee himself.
"He lost his teeth when he was very young due to malnutrition from his mother.
"I remembered from my first days at the nursing home he was always making potholders. Now don't ask me how he was taught this but he was real good at it and used to sell them to everybody. He'd say, 'You want to buy a potholder off me today—I got one for a $1.'
"He'd ask people, 'You know what I'm saving the money for? I'm saving for teeth.'
"When he first told me this, I said, 'Good for you, Louie, that's really wonderful! You're really trying to do something nice for yourself!' He said, 'Well, I feel like I need to do something because I can't stand chomping on my gums.' I said, 'You're right, that would feel pretty uncomfortable chewing.'
"After Louie started learning different things about me, I used to tease him and call him my boyfriend. The point is he got to talking to me about everything and he said one day,
'You know, Rita, I don't understand this. I've never had schooling in my life. I don't necessarily know how to write except for my name, but can you figure this out—I can read the Bible all the way through and tell you what it says through and through. I've memorized everything I've read.'
"I said, 'Wow, Louie, that's a gift from God!' Anyway, time went by and you really weren't allowed to talk about religion when you worked in a nursing home.
"One day I'll always remember was when I was invited to go with the whole nursing home, staff and patients, to Geauga Lake (an amusement park in northeastern Ohio). The other chaperones wanted to split off with the easier patients—the ones that wouldn't pee their pants and all that other stuff—but I took Louie and all the other mentally retarded one. I had about five or six to chaperone and I took off with them to show them a good time.
"I remember saying, 'Louie, pick out a ride. Pick out anything. It's your day.'
We found the first ride that had the right kind of steps for his foot and I said, 'Louie, we need to go one step at a time up those steps, so you hold onto me and I'll hold onto you and we'll get up there.'
"I said to all the men, 'We're going to do this all together guys because we're going to have a good time together.' And they said, 'Yeah!'
"So here's Louie trying to go up the steps with asthma and all, and he's getting up there and getting up there and getting up there--he's getting to the platform. Finally he got on this ride and then we all got on.
"I never saw anybody enjoy their day more. We did anything they wanted to do within reason. We had a ball. When we wanted to go to the bathroom, no problem. I said, 'Louie, I'll have to walk you to the door and you'll have to go by yourself. Go slow, and take your time because we're going to have a good time and we're not going to worry about you falling. We're not going to worry about anything.'
"And he said, 'Okay, Rita,' catching his breath and all because he had chronic asthma.
"As the day went on, we'd pass other people from the nursing home and the chaperones would say to me, 'Oh, I'm so tired. It's so hot out here.'
"They were complaining and here I was laughing inside, singing in my heart, thinking to myself, 'We're having a great time. I don't know about you, but we're having a super time!'
"Of course, I had the ones nobody else wanted, but I loved them. It was so nice spending time one-on-one with the people who really needed love.
"So get this, when we got back on the bus to go back to the nursing home, Louie said, 'I had the greatest time,' in his huffy voice--he was catching his breath, trying to smile and laugh at the same time.
“Then he said, 'I love you,' and I said, 'I love you too, Louie.' "And then all of a sudden I got a hug from all the men I took care of and I said to them, 'I love all of you the same and don't you ever forget it.'
"Then, when the other nursing home employees were huffing and puffing, complaining about the hard day they had, putting everybody into the toilet and everything, the activity director stood up in the bus and said, 'I have an announcement to make. I would like to say 'thank you' to somebody who did a wonderful job taking care of her group. And I would like to present this person a present from them.'
"And she named my name! It was a little heart trinket box and you know how I liked hearts when I was younger. I still keep it as my keepsake box.
"Time went by and, as you remember, I was in the hospital from the car accident we were in. Well, all 27 people in the nursing home took time to write me a card in the hospital.
"And then here's Louie, somebody's whose been crippled up since birth, and he's made me a heart from construction paper as a special homemade card. He told me later he made it to look like a light bulb with hearts at the bottom but without it coming to a point at the top. It didn't come to a point at the top.
"After that, guess what happened? Louie had almost earned all the money he needed for his teeth but guess what happened? He died.
"Since he was pretty much deserted by his mom and dad and everyone in his family, they asked me to give a eulogy at the funeral. I was so upset from his death, though; I just couldn't find the right words. I kept praying about it and I feel bad about it to this day. I still say sometimes to God, 'Say Hi to Louie for me.'
"Louie had a spirit of gold. Even though he was always the worst of clients at the nursing home because he couldn't do much, we hit it off like buddies from the beginning. I remember one time I said, 'Louie, how would you like to have a good back rub tonight to help you sleep.' He said, 'I haven't had one of those in years and I don't even remember having one. I don't mind if you do.'
I said, 'Good, because I'm going to give you a good back rub and give you some lotion and then you're going to sleep good.'
Here are some questions I asked my sister about Louie:
Lisa: "What exactly did he ever say about the Bible?"
Rita: "He could tell you anything that happened in the Bible and interpret it. I don't remember--it's been so long ago--but he would read it daily. Every day like clockwork. He would read in the morning, I think, but I worked in the afternoon, and I know he read before he went to bed."
Lisa: "Did he tell anybody about what he learned?"
Rita: "Oh, yeah, he used to quote story after story."
Lisa: "Did people listen?"
Rita: "Well, yeah, but you know when people hear religion they want to turn the other way. And then people would sometimes say things like, 'You're out of your mind. You don't know anything. You're different.'
"Me, I knew just to believe what I saw in him as a person. He was a man bound-and-determined man to get some teeth and he was bound-and-determined to get them by making potholders. He used to make towels, too, all kinds of stuff. Just trying to get along.
"The things I learned off those people were incredible. There was love there. There was magnetism there. There was spontaneous love. There was conviction. There were highlights in my day all the time. When I thought the whole world was ending, they always picked up my spirits.
"They said, 'It looks like you need a hug today.' I said, 'I sure can use one—give me a big one! Give me a big, bigger hug,' and they'd squeeze me and I'd say, 'Sing for me,' and they'd sing for me. They always did something to make me feel good because we were never allowed to receive gifts.
"But my gifts were internal. I saw God working in me to work FOR them."
Lisa: "You also saw God working in THEM for YOU."
Rita: "RIGHT! I mean I was taught morals, wisdom, spiritual life, giving life, Corinthian love. I was taught discipleship. I was taught religion. I was taught everything I needed to know to grow. They are the ones I credit. It was addicting to me because God gave me the strength to go to school full-time and, after school was up, go to work full-time. That was illegal of course, but I didn't know any better. I didn't know any better that I wasn't allowed to work until I was 16. You're not allowed to work past so many hours when you're 15.
"But it must have been God saying, 'You know, Rita, I think you deserve to be in that place right now. I'm going to choose that one.' Eventually it just became natural. Everything and anything happened for me. I felt God had responsibility for it—you know what I mean?
"I can't see myself ever forgetting those memories. I felt so strong it was God's way because I remember very well on August 10, 1978, when I called several different places, asking, 'Are you accepting applications?' and I'd get, 'No.' 'Do you need someone to pump gas?' 'No.' 'Do you need someone to be a waitress or clean up floors?' 'No.' Then I said, 'Oh, I'll just pick one more out of the phone book.'
"The last call I made was to 994-4250 and I asked, 'Are you accepting any applications?' The guy said, 'Well, what's your name,' and I told him. I said, 'Rita Leland.' He said, 'How old are you?' and I said, '15'. He asked, 'When's your birthday?' and I told him. He said, 'C'mon down and I'll talk to the manager in the mean time' and later on they said, 'We'll talk.' "