The Lost Purse – a short story that spans a lifetime
(Prelude: This story has been narrated with the West as its setting … to bring home a universal message applicable to all mankind)
The old man, whose name was John, looked around for his wallet he seemed to have lost in the crowded train compartment. Though over 80 years of age, he was still in good health to travel alone. On this pleasant October evening, he was returning by train from New York City to his home in Cold Spring. The train journey would take him over one hour and a half to reach his home. His small 2 bedroom house was conveniently located near the railway station of this charming small town on the Hudson.
He had settled in Cold Spring some 20 years back, soon after his retirement from the services of the Grand Insurance Company. He had a reasonably successful career in the company and had never considered to go for a change. He had been very happy with his job for all of the 35 years he worked here till his retirement. The salary he earned afforded him a comfortable lifestyle. At the time of his retirement, he had risen to the post of Assistant Manager of his company’s operations in New York City.
Sweat broke across his wrinkled forehead and face on this day. He seemed to be quite concerned at the loss of his purse. His eyes darted across the floor of the moving train, and through the gaps between the legs of the passengers seated in front of him. After several anxious moments, he still had not reclaimed his lost “treasure”.
Finally, with a sigh of resignation, he leaned back on his seat and closed his eyes.
The train continued on its assigned journey without missing a beat. It never seemed to care for individual predicaments of its passengers, nor could offer any solution for the problems that some of them encountered during the course of their journeys. It always did what it is supposed to do- remain ever focused on its task of carrying loads of passengers to their individual destinations. The train just revolves dozens of its greased wheels in monotonous rhythm on the rails. While the parallel tracks lying at a few feet distance never get to meet each other at any point in its many journeys, they have ironically come together to help thousands of its passengers to meet their near and dear ones.
The old man’s physical appearance portrayed him in good light. Despite his old age, he looked alert and healthy. There was a blush of pink across his chubby cheeks. He carried his average sized frame on an erect spine, a clear indication of a still active and healthy life. Old age had not succeeded in grounding him to the confines of the four walls of his home yet.
A pretty lady passenger, who had been aware of the old man’s anxious search for his lost purse, turned her head slightly to take a closer look at him. John was now resting with his eyes closed; his awareness was disconnected from all the restless scenes being enacted inside the compartment.
She was impressed with what she saw. He was clean-shaven. His all-white crop of surprisingly thick hairs was neatly combed straight back, accentuating the effect of his broad forehead. It gave him a noble look. His clothes were modest, but neat and properly pressed. His dress complemented his personality quite well. His skin was wrinkled but failed to hide his vitality and good health.
As the lady kept looking at this elderly figure, she found herself caught in an unusual mental activity. As the train progressed on its course, she started wondering about the old man with more than a passing curiosity. Time ticked on, and her curiosity increased as many concerns about him crossed her young mind.
“Surely, the person must be very lonely at this advanced age,” she mused.
“Thank the good Lord that He has given this old fellow a good health to take care of himself,” another thought crossed her head.
Several questions followed but did not cross her lips – “Who were his close relatives?”…“Did he have children?”… ” Was his wife still living?”
On and on her thoughts travelled along the grooves of her consciousness, as the train tugged along on the weather-beaten tracks.
She of course had no answers to any of the questions she was having about his co-passenger. At best, her curiosity remained in the realms of speculation and imagination.
The clock ticked along to construct the minutes of the train journey for its passengers. Suddenly she noticed an old brown color wallet. It was caught between 2 suitcases that were standing close together under the opposite seat. She was certain that this wallet belonged to the old man. Filled with curiosity, she bent forward to collect the lost “treasure” in her well manicured fingers of her right hand.
“It must be something of a significant value to him,” the thought flashed through the lady’s mind.
As the old man had closed his eyes and seemed deep in some thought, she was reluctant to stir him out of his respite from the world that existed around him.
“Handing over the wallet can wait,” she decided.
She touched the wallet with her fingers, and observed that it was quite old but had a well maintained exterior. She resisted her curiosity to open the wallet. The moment this thought came to her mind, she felt ashamed to have even considered peeking into the privacy of an elderly person.
She took a deep breath, carefully dropping the wallet into her large cream purse. The wallet and its mystery consigned inside her purse now, she fished out a small mirror and looked into it to ensure that her makeup was intact. After a few strokes on her face with a powdered cotton swab, and a gentle brush across her hair, she seemed satisfied. She finally rested her palms on her knees. Leaning back on her seat, she closed her large grey eyes.
With external scenes removed from her gaze, she found herself helplessly sucked up in her own memory thoughts. A procession of many unrelated events crossed the landscape of her mind from some hidden source deep inside her.
The train chugged along and so did the ever moving time.
John’s eyes were closed but he had not drifted into a slumber. He was delving deep into his past; an activity for which he always found enough time ever since he retired many years back. Pension and his years of savings now provided him enough income to lead a comfortable life. He always had some surplus funds to give to charity. He loved to help others in need when ever he could.
But this day had brought to the fore of his consciousness, a series of remembrances that revolved around his lost purse. The purse had been with him for past 70 years. It was a very dear possession in his life. He had always wished that it would be with him till his last day on earth. The “loss” seemed irreparable to him and awakened many poignant memories from his past.
Eyes still firmly closed, he found himself sitting on a TIME MACHINE. As always, the virtual machine was taking him into his bygone years at break neck speed. He loved his flights on this machine to the times long past; it always provided him an escape from the loneliness of the present times.
Soon he was back into his child hood days. He was now a seven year old boy living in his dad’s farm house. His dear dad was there to give him company again.
His parents had been divorced when he was only 3 years old. Her mother had consented that his father would have the custody of their only child, and be responsible for growing him up.
After his mother left them, the child’s life revolved around his father. John basked in the love that his dad showered on him profusely. He would drop John at school every morning, after helping him with dressing up and breakfast. In the afternoon, John was always met at the school gate by his dad. He would come in his big red utility van to take him back to the farmhouse. Those were very happy days in John’s life.
Back from school, the father-son duo spent all their time together. His dad was around to help John with his homework. Often he would play with him any game that caught his fancy. Many evenings saw them walk hand in hand around the large farm. Dinner was always eaten at the same hour together.
They were inseparable till they fell asleep at night.
On his eighth birthday, John’s father presented him a brown colored leather wallet. It was a sturdy three fold purse made of super-thin top-grain leather on the outside and ultra-thin nylon microfiber on the inside. It had 3 sections to keep currency notes and a zipped pouch for stacking coins.
When John opened the wallet, he was very happy to see several currency notes neatly placed in its folds. This was going to be his first pocket money, given to him by his loving dad to spend as he wished.
A transparent section on the inside of the first fold was where one could put a photograph. This was empty at this time. His dad smiled and told John, “Son, this place is a special one in your purse. Always keep the picture of the most important person in your life here. It will provide you inspiration every time you will open your purse. During your dark moments, when the going gets tough, it will provide you courage to keep on.”
The boy nodded in understanding. He was so attuned to his dad that he could always grasp his words and also the spirit behind his words.
As soon as he got time, he scampered inside his room with his new purse clutched in his right hand.
He opened his favorite story book, a Hardy Boys novel that he was reading at this time. He was an avid reader of mystery books and his dad kept a stack of them on his study desk. “How much my Dad loves me,” he took a deep breath as this thought crossed his mind. Flicking quickly through its pages, he located the object of his search – the smiling picture of his smart looking and youthful dad. He carefully took the picture and gently slid it into the transparent fold of his purse. He looked at his dad for a long time in admiration and love. His dad was indeed the most important person in his life, he thought, and will always occupy this unique place in his purse.
Years rolled on. His father had grown into an elderly person now. He stooped a little and traces of wrinkles were fast making their appearance on his face. He had devoted his life to provide the best opportunities to his son. He ensured that he got a good education. He took extra care to give him healthy meals, much of which he cooked himself. He introduced John to all the sporting activities that took place in the town. His sacrifices for his son were numerous. He never married again, though he had offers from several of the town’s ladies. He did not want to bring anyone into his life who could possibly compete for his love that he had for his son.
When John grew up into adulthood, his relationship with his father started turning cold. He was less than enthusiastic about his dad’s influences on him now. The old man’s “old” ways did not hold the same inspiration for him as they had when he was still a kid.
As a young adult, John had developed varied interests in life that went with the youth of his times. He often dreamt about his future moves. He wanted to leave this small dusty town; it hardly offered him any opportunities to pursue his dream of landing an office job.
And finally one day, he stood in front of his dad and announced, “Dad, I want to tell you something today.”
After the old man nodded his consent, John continued, “I want to go to a big city and find a job that will meet my aspirations. I cannot remain here for ever with only farming as a possible future.”
His stunned father stared at the floor for several minutes. Both of them could hear a pin drop. John stood still with a big lump in his dry throat, waiting for his dad’s response. After what seemed an eternity, his father took a deep breath. With a sigh of resignation, he replied, “Son, please go along. I have just a few years left, but you have a full life ahead of you. Live all your dreams to the full.”
Making the decision of parting easier for his son, he added, “I will never be far away from you, though. When ever you need me, just open your purse and look at my picture. You will never fail to get my unspoken response. I will always talk to you through your thoughts.”
The day of reckoning arrived. One Sunday afternoon, when the father-son duo returned from the church, John hurled his large suitcase into his car. Hugging his dad warmly for a long time, he finally disengaged and drove away from his childhood home.
This was the last time John would be seeing his dad.
Once in the city, John had no difficulty in finding a job in an insurance company dealing with household goods and motor vehicles.
He was intelligent and hardworking, and quickly rose to head an important section in his office. The office work interested him and he was quite happy in his vocation. His dad’s farmhouse life seemed quite dull when compared with the hustle and bustle of the city life.He found lots of avenues for recreation. He became a member of a popular club, where he spent his evenings with some of his office colleagues. He played billiards and sometimes would splash around the club’s swimming pool. Drinks and dinner would follow before he retired to his small flat for a good night’s sleep. Life seemed so wonderful now, away from the slow life of the country side.
As days passed, his dad gradually became an insignificant influence in his life. He hardly noticed his picture in his purse now.
One day John did the unthinkable. He replaced his dad’s picture with his own. He was much enamored by his good looks. He felt nice to see his own face and his crop of thick black hair. After he had placed his best picture in the purse, he took his dad’s photo and dropped it in the little used lower drawer of his desk.
That same night, as John sat in his rocking chair reading a book, the phone rang with its customary shrill ringing. The stillness of the cold night had been broken as he got up to take the call.
His close childhood friend was on the line. His voice broke as he informed John, “Your father passed away an hour back. He was alone in the house when this happened. The incident came to light when I went over to meet him to discuss some church related work. He was found on the floor dead.”
The news stunned John as nothing before had. After exchanging some information about his father’s passing and the funeral plans, he hung the phone and dropped to his knees. Weeping as never before, he cried loudly as a small child who had just lost his most dear possession.
Many episodes from his childhood flashed through John’s mind that night as he drove his car towards his hometown to attend the funeral of his dad. It was to be the saddest journey of his life.
But time is the best healer for any sorrow born out of human separation. As the earth moved on its relentless journey around the sun, the memories of his dad soon became like the proverbial “water under the bridge”.
Not long after, John’s life took a romantic turn. He met a pretty woman who had come into his office one afternoon. Her name was Mary, and her work involved an insurance claim that she had filed with John’s firm. The matter required several meetings between John and Mary, including visits to her house for inspection of the damaged assets.
Before he could realise, John had fallen in love. Their official meetings soon took a backseat, as they started dating regularly. Mary was not only pretty but had a rare quality – she loved simple joys that came her way. She was ever satisfied with what she had received in life. Her laughter was contagious, and would come out of her pretty lips in child like abandon at the slightest provocation.
It was not long after their first meeting that John replaced his photograph with that of Mary in his purse. He spent many happy moments during the day looking at the photograph of this pretty lady. She was the only interest in his life now.
Before the end of that year, the inevitable happened when John and Mary got married in the big St Francis Xavier’s church of the city. They exchanged rings and took the customary vows of eternal loyalty and love.
Happy times were spent in each others company. They regularly went on vacations to exotic places around the world. They dined in best of restaurants, went for swimming during week ends, tried their hands in tennis games in the local club which they frequented, watched sporting events in the large stadium in the city, took long walks together and did all their marketing in each others company. They seemed so happy with their marital life that many of their friends secretly felt envious of the love they had for each other.
Their son was born three years after their marriage. Life for John and Mary would never be same now onwards. Suddenly they were transported to a world of diapers & shots; laughter and cries; toys and balloons. Unnoticed by both, their love for each other lost its earlier shine with the arrival of their son. Their beautiful child became the centre of their lives now. Parental love seemed stronger than their marital chord.
After years of occupying John’s purse, Mary’s photograph was replaced with that of his son’s.
John doted on his son. He spent hours playing with him. At times he could not avoid recalling his own chid hood days, when he had basked in the love of his own dad. John could clearly identify parallels here. He would shiver in apprehension when ever the thought crossed his mind that his son would also leave him one day.
“Had I not left my dad when I grew up?” John often mused. He felt sorry for having done so. But that was bygones in his life now.
When their son was a teenager, life took a nasty turn for the family. Mary became ill and was hospitalized. She was diagnosed with blood cancer. Within a few months, she left her mortal coil, leaving behind a distraught husband and a weeping son.
John and their son clung to each other for all their support. Many problems and unfolding events tapered the memories of Mary from their consciousness. Their preoccupation with day to day joys and struggles left them very little time to indulge in the past.
Suddenly, John woke up with a start to find himself once again in the crowded train.
He recalled that before he fell into a reverie, he had been looking for his lost purse. He looked around again without much hope of success. Soon his gaze fell on the amused eyes of a lady fellow passenger. She was observing him with more than a casual interest.
“Was she laughing at my old age and accompanying helplessness?” this thought came into John’s mind quite strongly as he stared back at her with his penetrating gaze. He saw her opening her large purse. His lost wallet appeared in front of his gaze immediately. A smile of joy crossed Johns face, on seeing his purse he had given up as lost.
She enquired, “Are you looking for this?”
John reached forward to collect his purse from the young lady. As he drew closer to her face, she could immediately observe a healthy glow on his wrinkled face.
She observed him opening the purse. The purse contained only a few dollar bills.
“The loss of the purse should not have caused so much concern to this man,” She thought, on learning that the purse contained very little money.
But she saw John looking very intently at a small card kept in the transparent fold of the purse. Something was neatly printed on it. He read it with deep concentration before flipping the purse on its fold and placing it back in his shirt pocket.
The lady’s curiosity had now reached its peak as she blurted out, “Pardon me sir, why were you so concerned about an old purse that contained just a few dollar bills?”
John broke into a broad grin and replied, “The purse has been with me for over 70 years now. It is a reminder for me that life’s joys and interests are as ephemeral as the dew on the grass.”
Seeing the bewilderment in the face of the woman, John told her briefly about his life and the role the purse played at different phases of his life.
He finally concluded, “When I was a child, my father was the most important person in my life. I always kept his picture in my purse. When I was a young man, I replaced my dad’s picture with mine. When I fell in love, I removed my picture and started keeping that of my lady love. Later, when my son was born, he became the most important person in my life. He soon took the prized position in my purse. The purse is very dear to me indeed and I use it to recollect on my most important relationships and also how impermanent they had been.”
The lady found the tale so enthralling that she exclaimed in excitement, “But sir, I do not see any picture now in your purse. Why are you still so attached to your old purse?”
John laughed heartily. He was more than happy to share his experiences with this pretty lady who had returned his prize possession.
“I removed the picture of my son from my purse when he left me when he grew up. He completely forgot me after he got married. He had no time for me, even when I fell ill and was hospitalized. It was then that I realised the impermanence of human relationships and attachments. I started in earnest to look for some one who would love me unconditionally.”
The pretty lady was looking with amazement at her fellow traveler now. John looked very happy as he sat erect on his seat. His eyes shone with a peace that was difficult to describe. His face held a glow that was rarely seen in the world.
John did not wait for the lady to ask the next question.
He closed his eyes and continued speaking in his melodious voice, “My dear child. I was so depressed after my life’s experiences, and many ephemeral relationships, that for the last 20 years I have been on a journey to understand life’s mysteries. After I had recovered from my near fatal illness, I travelled to many countries in search of happiness. But where ever I went, I saw the same thing; matter-mad people running helter-skelter for ephemeral wealth and relationships. As I looked around, I could bet all my wealth on the actual happiness-quotient of these people. They were as deluded as I was when my son abandoned me.”
“But you have surely found happiness and I can bet my own wealth on this,” the lady spoke with unabashed enthusiasm, “Pray, please tell me what you ultimately found?”
The old man’s continence was so blissful, so peaceful, that it left no doubts in her mind about his state. The only missing piece was: “What had this man found that changed the course of his life?”
John smiled sympathetically at the lady’s excitement to know about the missing puzzle of his life.
He took a deep breath before continuing with his final revelation, “It was in a small hermitage in India that I discovered happiness.
“Here I met a poor renunciant who had just a few loin cloths as his sole possession.
“He was staying in his hut for many decades and was known as a man of God. He was compassionate beyond imagination. Many persons came to him for help and guidance. He exuded unconditional love and joy which he showered on all who came to meet him.”
There was long pause. John was struggling to keep his emotions in check now. Apart from the young lady, others in the compartment were all ears as they lapped up every word John spoke. They crouched forward on their seats trying to follow the conversation between the happy old man and the pretty lady. No one wanted to miss a word that John spoke.
John continued, “The sage showed more than an ordinary interest in me. I would visit him often, hoping to get some answers for my very troubled mind. I felt a deep peace and love in his presence. This attracted me to his hut every morning.
“He could speak haltingly in English and always had a few words of affection for me. The disconcerting thing that I soon found out was that he knew my thoughts and often talked to me with reference to my unspoken words. But he never judged me or my faults. His love was unconditional and pure.
“As days passed, I felt a growing peace in my consciousness. On some rare occasions, I felt a love bubbling up in my heart. It was not a selfish human love born out of relationships, but an unconditional love that seemed to envelop all. A few times, I experienced a joy that I found difficult to contain. Those were the happiest days of my life.
“It seemed, I would be spending the rest of my life in company of this holy man. But one day he addressed me gently, ‘My child, please return to your country now. I have given you all that you will need to live your life with a meaningful purpose.’
“I asked him, ‘Revered sage, please tell me what I should use as my guidepost in life. I have only met sorrow in my relationships. These were so impermanent that I would not like to return to such a life again.’
“He smiled sweetly and asked me to return the next day.”
There was a long pause, as John entered the glorious past to relive those blissful moments of his life.
“The next day found me at the door of his hut earlier than my usual time. The sage asked me to sit on the ground near him. As I sat at his feet, he looked at me with such love that I was transported to a different world altogether. After what seemed ages, he gave me a small square card on which was neatly written a few lines. ‘These,’ he said, ‘would be the only guidepost you would ever need to live in harmony and joy. They are from your own scripture, The Holy Bible’.”
After a brief interlude, John again opened his purse. He carefully took out a small cardboard from the fold where he earlier used to keep the picture of the “dearest” person in his life. He leaned forward and turned the cardboard face up for the pretty lady and other passengers to read.
The WORDS that were neatly written on the cardboard made everyone gasp:
“YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND; AND YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.”
The silence that followed was palpable as John closed his purse and gently placed it back in his pocket.
For several minutes, the only sound that came was from the rhythmic movement of the wheels on the rails. The train was gradually slowing down for its last stop of its day’s journey.
The final destination had been reached; it was a moment of parting for John and his co-passengers.
John got up slowly and picked up his small black leather hand bag. Others stood up in
silent respect for this old man. He had suddenly brought into their lives a divine truth that they had only heard during Sunday Church meetings, but had never put to practice.
Night had descended when John disembarked on the railway platform. Others followed him and stood around him in silence.
There was a divine aura that engulfed the small group as they bid each other good bye. They would probably never meet again, but the moments that they had spent together with the wise old man would remain with them for ever. Their goals in life would see a definite change now.
John moved on towards the station’s exit area, with a slow measured gait – he was on a journey that would never end for him.