Once upon a time I lived next door to a little old lady. Her name was Mrs. Reilly, and she was a widow. She liked to talk to me about what I did, where I was from, and how I kept my yard.
She told me the last people to rent my town house kept their yard in an abominable state. They didn’t mow for months on end. Her game was to shame me into keeping my yard in good shape, and it worked, for the most part.
Mrs. Reilly was no hypocrite. Her yard was the best on the block. She was often up before the crack of dawn watering her lawn. There were a lot of water alerts those days. Warnings that the Toronto water reservoirs were dangerously low, that we shouldn’t use any more water than we absolutely had to. Yet Mrs. Reilly’s sprinklers would remain on full, Mrs. Reilly going thirsty herself no doubt so that her lawn wouldn’t suffer.
Sometimes my square metre of grass would get past me, but I managed to stay in Mrs. Reilly’s good books. After each time I cut it she would dart out with her broom, calling “Joey, you can use my broom to sweep the grass off the driveway,” and I would. (I have no idea why she called me Joey instead of Joe–the only people left in the world who call me that are my mother, who’s entitled, and some of my mother’s friends, who aren’t. But I didn’t really mind, because how could I? She was a nice old lady.)
One day Mrs. Reilly spied me in the driveway and emerged from her house carrying a large yellow envelope with something bulky inside it.
“Joey,” she said, “you work for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, right?”
That’s right, I said.
“Would you mind giving this to Knowlton Nash for me then?”
I told her that I had never met Knowlton Nash, as in those days I worked for CBC Radio, not CBC Television.
Mrs. Reilly didn’t know the difference and didn’t care.
She showed me what was in the envelope. It was a framed picture of Knowlton Nash smiling up from behind his newsdesk. Judging by the famous newscaster’s spiffy clothes, the picture had been taken sometime in the early seventies.
Mrs. Reilly explained that her husband had been distantly related to Nash. Seems Nash had given the picture to another relative and eventually it had wound up in Mr. Reilly’s hands. After her husband passed away, Mrs. Reilly decided she wanted to give the picture back to Nash.
Perhaps I should refer to him as Mr. Nash, out of respect, and seeing as I didn’t know him. I reminded Mrs. Reilly of this fact, adding that I didn’t think Mr. Nash even worked for the Corporation any more. He had retired.
The truth was, I figured the odds of me being able to return the picture to Mr. Nash were about as great as me getting up early one Saturday morning to mow the lawn: nil, in other words.
“Take the picture,” Mrs. Reilly insisted. “Maybe you’ll run into him someday.”
I was stuck with the picture.
Two years later I moved, and never saw Mrs. Reilly again. Her yellow envelope languished in my locker at work, where I saw it just about every day.
Several years went by.
Every time I opened the locker I felt guilty. Once in a while I took the picture out and looked at it just to make sure Mr. Nash’s smile hadn’t turned into a frown. Okay, it never did, but damned if he wasn’t looking at me as if to say, “When are you going to give me the picture, Joey?”
“Don’t call me Joey,” I would tell the picture, before putting it back in the locker. “It’s Joe.”
One time I caught a glimpse of Mr. Nash in the CBC Atrium and I thought: quick, run, get the picture from the locker! But I knew that he’d be long gone by the time I got back, so I didn’t.
I hung onto the picture. I thought about visiting the people at the National and asking them how I might get the picture to Mr. Nash. But I figured they’d probably just say, what would Knowlton want with an old picture of himself, anyway? So I didn’t. I was afraid they wouldn’t understand the obligation I felt to this little old lady. I didn’t understand it myself.
Fast forward a few more years. One day a production assistant told me, “Hey, you’re going to be working with someone interesting this afternoon–Knowlton Nash. He’s coming in to do a phone-in show.”
Finally, I could unload the picture. I didn’t think twice about it. Friends said, why bother? I tried to explain: I didn’t feel right keeping the picture for myself, I couldn’t throw it away, and I couldn’t live with the darn thing in my locker any more.
I carried the tattered yellow envelope with me all day. It came time for the phone-in show. The production assistant introduced me to Mr. Nash in the announce booth. It was my job to adjust his microphone and make sure he was comfortable, after which I would sit in the control room and tech the interview, riding the levels and whatnot. I had brought the envelope containing the picture into the booth with me.
Feeling stupid, I explained the situation to Mr. Nash:
“Mrs. Reilly knew that I worked for the CBC and asked me to give this to you,” I told him. “I’ve had it in my locker for years.”
“You kept the picture for HOW long?” Nash snarled, before breaking it over his knee.
Okay, that would have been the more dramatic ending, but it’s Knowlton Nash we’re talking about here, a genuine gentleman by all accounts, and my experience with him was no different.
He examined the picture with genuine interest, then opened the card Mrs. Reilly had included and silently read it. Afterwards, he smiled, nodded, and thanked me.
Silly? I thought so at first, but I don’t think so any more. Getting the picture to Knowlton Nash had been important to Mrs. Reilly, and regardless of what I had originally thought of the mission, it felt good to finally see it through.
You’re welcome, Mrs. Reilly.