By NANCY PATRICK
Not often heard today, the word “integrity” has disappeared from most people’s vocabulary. Everyone seems to know what courage, honesty, sincerity, responsibility, and reliability mean; however, the word “integrity” seems even more abstract than those qualities. Definitions of the word include “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness; the state of wholeness or completeness; the state of being unified, unimpaired, or of sound construction.”
These definitions contain elements or attributes beyond similar words such as honesty or responsibility. An honest person may not possess a strong moral uprightness just as someone else’s sense of responsibility does not equate to completeness or wholeness in other ways.
For years, I taught a short story entitled “A Mother in Mannville” by Marjorie Rawlings. Certain literary pieces often made indelible impressions in my mind and spirit. I excitedly prepared lessons on these favorite stories because I wanted to share my insights with my students and hear their reactions. Although they sometimes gratified me with appreciation, I confess that in most instances my students did not perceive the meaning I did about a particular story. “A Mother in Mannville” provides an excellent example.
The story has little action, rather focusing on a cerebral experience than a physical one. The plot line, quite simply, tells of a female narrator who rents a rural cabin near an orphanage, probably in New England. She requests the orphanage to send a man or boy to chop firewood for her as the autumn evenings begin to cool. To her surprise, a rather small twelve-year-old boy appears one afternoon and tells her he has come to chop her firewood. Though she doubts that such a small child can do an adequate job, she allows him to work the first day.
To her surprise, the boy, Jerry, does an exceptional job of sorting, cutting, and stacking the wood by types of wood and size of log. The narrator pays him and tells him he can come back regularly.
As the story progresses, the narrator, who remains unnamed, and her dog Pat become close to Jerry. Pat and Jerry enjoy romps in the woods, and Jerry often waits on the step at day’s end so he can visit with her. She finds herself thinking about Jerry frequently as she considers his confidence and sense of responsibility. She thinks of the word “integrity” because Jerry reminds her of her own father.
Jerry illustrates his integrity not only in his work ethic but also in his innate sense of responsibility and unselfishness. When the narrator goes on a weekend trip, she leaves Pat in Jerry’s care with exactly enough food for the duration of her absence. However, a heavy fog prevents her scheduled return, delaying it by a day. When she arrives at the cabin, she finds Jerry there with Pat, who had eaten the remainder of his dog food the day before. Jerry, realizing that he could not neglect Pat’s needs, had brought his own breakfast from the orphanage to feed Pat.
One evening as the narrator and Jerry visit, he tells her he has a mother who lives nearby in Mannville. The idea that any mother could abandon a child as precious as Jerry appalls the narrator. She makes harsh judgments about such a person though Jerry tells her that his mother occasionally sends gifts such as roller skates. The narrator plans to ask the orphanage’s director about Jerry’s situation, but she becomes busy with her own life and puts off learning anything further about the child.
As autumn nears its end, the narrator decides to pursue her work elsewhere. She tells Jerry goodbye and does not see him again. She does, however, return the cabin key to the orphanage’s director where she leaves money for the director to purchase occasional gifts for Jerry. She tells the director this way she will not duplicate gifts his mother sends him such as the skates. The story ends rather abruptly with the director saying in a puzzled tone, “Jerry has no mother. He has no roller skates.”
Most of my students reacted with a big “What?” My reaction was more of a big “Wow!” I understood why the narrator attributed integrity to Jerry. My students said, “But he’s a liar.” What I saw beyond the surface lie of saying he had a mother who remained a small part of his life was Jerry’s wholeness, his completeness, his moral uprightness, his sense of human dignity, and his integrity.
Although he realized the narrator’s feelings of pity for him, he did not want pity. He needed to feel unimpaired (not truly orphaned) so the narrator would see him as someone who had a loving mother. Just as he had gone beyond the requirements for the jobs for which the narrator had paid him, he rejected pity from someone for whom he cared. Jerry possessed innate goodness, quality, and worthiness.
The story prods me to think about people of integrity in my life. The last time I taught the story, I challenged my students to think of someone they knew who possessed integrity. They chose a popular, talented, smart, and nice-looking classmate. I knew the young man from another class, but my students did not know that this same young man had stopped by my classroom door just the day before and asked me to write a tardy excuse, saying I had detained him and made him late for his next class, which I had not done.
That was over twenty years ago, and I have never forgotten that experience. Not only did I feel disappointed in him, but his request intrigued me. Had I ever done anything that would lead him to believe I would behave without integrity? I certainly hoped not, but the request prompted me to consider my own life. Did I possess integrity? I thought of myself as honest, sincere, kind, generous, and loving; however, did I go beyond those singular attributes to attain a wholeness, a completeness, an unimpaired soul?
Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing