Mrs. Reynolds – The Enlightened Witness

Alice Miller coined the term ‘the enlightened witness’. The enlightened witness is a person who ‘shows you another way to live’ and gives you implicitly or explicitly another way to view the world.

I was blessed growing up because although my family was not preoccupied with trying to entertain me or stop me from getting bored, I did have an awful lot of freedom.

I was also surrounded by aunties and uncles, cousins, neighbours and friend’s parents.

I had two very formidable and loving grandmothers who have been foundational to my growth and development.

I remember once my friend Micheal’s mother asking me if I’d like a scrambled egg sandwich.

This was something I’d never even heard of and to this day remains a powerful memory but it was even more amazing when she asked me if I’d like sugar on my tomatoes on toast.

This was beyond the pale but the point I make here is that you never forget these things because they are contrary to your frame of reference.

However back to the subject of Mrs. Reynolds, who for my entire childhood was the enlightened witness extraordinaire.

Suffering from agoraphobia, for which she took barbiturates and ‘purple hearts’, she rarely left house except to walk her dog down to the
river in the morning.

For the rest of the time she was home. She would be baking exotic cakes like coffee kisses (my gran would never cook with coffee!), bacon and egg flans (there were no quiches in those days) and home made sausage plaits which were to die for.

These for her husband and daughter and the endless people who popped in and yes it’s a cliche but really the doors were never locked.

Sometimes when my gran’s family would come and stay I’d have to stay with Mrs Reynolds overnight- to my amazement at 9pm every night she’d do the equivalent of a full English- just before bed!

She was a Geordie you see so they did things like that.

Not only did Mrs. Reynolds cook amazing food but she had veritable menagerie of animals. Mandy the sheepdog, Tish and Tosh (two very elderly tortoises reported to be in their sixties), hamsters, several cats, canaries and a sparrow called Charlie Farnsbarne.

Some local children had taken Charlie to Mrs. Reynolds when he was seriously injured and he was nursed back to health in a budgie cage, which she hung on the washing line.

When it was time for Charlie to go she opened the door of the cage and he flew off, quickly to return to the top of the cage where he lived for the following twelve years, turning grey before dying of old age.

What a sanctuary her house was not just for me and my sister but for local neighbours and friends. The point about enlightened witnesses is that you never forget them because they give you permission to live differently. They also love you and that helps.

There were some native American tribes (the Navajo and the Zuni) that revered queer and transgender people, calling them ‘contraries’. They had special spiritual or cultural roles being respected as having special gifts and perspectives; before the coloniser came along!

Did you have any unforgettable people who showed you how to live, think feel and act differently? And by the way, I see that as part of the role of a counsellor or psychotherapist to be the enlightened witnesses for the people who come to see us.

Words by Geoff Hopping

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