Building a Mystery
I had rolled my eyes on the other end of the phone when Jaime gave me the directions to the farm. It was the proverbial “turn left at the red barn” type of description. I’m not even sure why I wrote them down, maybe it was the journalist’s note-taking habit on autopilot. I desperately reach for these very same instructions though, as the rental car’s GPS tries yet again to take me down the same dead-end gravel road.
Eventually, I find my way past the cattleguard, left at the fork in the road 1.2kms past the yellow farmhouse (did you know they painted it that colour to match the dandelions?), and up the gravel road to an orchard overlooking the lake.
Jaime doesn’t live here, she has told me she is “gleaning” in support of the Feed the Valley program. I have no idea what to make of this, but soon discover it means to recover food left over by farmers to donate to people in need. Today, she is at an apple orchard picking up the overripe and bruised fruit left behind. They will use this fruit to make applesauce at the local soup kitchen. She wants to meet me here so I get “the full valley experience”. I stifle a groan.
As I round the bend to the orchard, I am struck by the gold and red patchwork of turning leaves along the bench framing the east side of the lake. The sun is on its descent and the sky is an even deeper blue than when I landed at the airport. As I pull up to the orchard, I can see people bent over picking apples from the ground into bins beside them.
“Food wastage and hunger, those are the real stories,” Jaime had informed me over the phone, “this is what you should be writing about.”
But this is not why I’ve come to the valley. Word has spread about a mysterious philanthropist who is, seemingly at random, paying off people’s mortgages and student loans. Jaime is working as the agent of this wealthy do-gooder, who prefers to remain anonymous, and I’ve come to dig up the truth.
As I pull up in my Ford Taurus, I see one of the bent-over bodies straighten up and look in my direction, holding her hand over her eyes to shield them from the sun. I park the car and get out, taking a deep breath of the fresh, cool autumn air. I pull my scarf closer to ward off the cool breeze and turn to let the sun warm my face.
“Hi! You must be Anna Maria,” says the woman coming towards me, “I’m Jaime, welcome!”
I greet Jaime who looks to be in her late 40’s, her face lined like that of someone who spends a lot of time in the sun, laughing. She looks me straight in the eyes, almost intently, a trait that I find somewhat disconcerting at first but come to appreciate by the end of my visit.
We shake hands and she takes me on a brief tour of the orchard, stopping now and then to introduce me to other volunteers. She includes some kind of compliment or accolade for every person she presents to me. Far from contrived, it’s more like the results of a lifelong habit of finding the good in people and sharing it with the world.
“Hungry?” she asks, just as I can feel more than hear a deep rumbling in my belly.
“Yes,” I reply, looking around me dubiously at the mountains of bruised apples.
“Let me just wash up quickly and I’ll take you over to an amazing bistro at the winery across the highway.”
As she disappears into a small shed, I look around wondering what sort of place they called a “bistro” around here.
Less than half an hour later, we are sitting on the outdoor patio of a beautifully modern winery building and restaurant overlooking acres of grape vines. We are on the lee side of the building, faces warmed by the sun, and sipping an amazing white blend of wine that Jaime informs me can only be purchased at the winery.
Through courses of charcuterie, white bean and parsnip soup, and heirloom tomato salad, I learn what little she will divulge of the philanthropic phenom known locally as “The Happy Hatter”.
“First of all, where does that name come from?”
“Oh,” she sighs, “no idea who first started it. It’s a bit goofy if you ask me. It’s a combination of how happy he makes people, and that he must be mad as a hatter for giving away so much money. Someone coined the name and, well, it stuck I guess.” Jaime shrugs as she leans back to gaze over the vines.
“So The Happy Hatter is a man?” I ask, jumping on her use of “he”.
“Yup,” she replies taking a sip of wine.
I look at her curiously, her eyes uncharacteristically fixed on the glass in front of her, and wait for her to elaborate. Nothing comes.
“So…” I prompt her, “Is he from around here?”
“He lives here most of the time. Look, I’m not going to tell you who he is. He really just wants to remain anonymous. Maybe try a different line of questioning.” She smiles to soften the rebuke.
“Hmm, OK, well, I guess the next question is – why?”
She looks at me, almost quizzically, as if trying to decide how to respond.
“Because he can,” she finally replies, “Because it makes him feel good. Because he gets a kick out of it. Because it actually makes a difference.”
“Most of the donations have been to single parents, is this a clue to his background?” I ask.
“Maybe,” she answers, eyes twinkling. You can tell she loves the mystery of it all.
“It’s also been noted that you personally know a lot of the recipients. Do you make recommendations to him?”
“I’ve been asked this before, and I want to make it clear that he does what he wants, he doesn’t ask me for advice. I help him with the logistics of the donation, that’s it. I’ve had a lot of people come asking me for money because they think I can sway his opinion. Look, it’s a small town, there can’t be more than 1 or 2 degrees of separation between everyone, so it’s highly likely that I’m going to know the recipients.”
“So how does he choose who he helps?”
“I think the choice is hard. There are so many deserving people. I think he likes to help people with children – if you can positively influence a child’s life, you can potentially change the world.”
“Change the world…so that’s what he’s trying to do?”
“Look, life is a gift, one he is grateful to have. He believes it is his duty to give back, to make the most of this gift of life. And changing the world might seem crazy to us, but he believes he can. So let’s leave it at that.”
The server comes to refill our glasses and Jaime turns to chat with her. They talk about their kids, who seem to know each other. It turns out the server is a single Mom who has been the lucky beneficiary of The Happy Hatter’s work.
I ask her about it and she says,
“I came home from work one day about a year ago. My feet were sore, I’d had a run-in with a less than lovely customer. I’d missed my son’s Christmas concert because I needed to pick up extra shifts to cover the new dirtbiking gear I wanted to buy him. I didn’t think he would care, but he was really upset and I was seized by this incredible sense of helplessness and guilt.”
She puts her water jug down and leans against the table, looking out at the vineyard, remembering.
“Just then, I got a call. I didn’t recognize the number, but answered anyway. The call was from a friend of mine at the bank. He is a teller there. He sounded really excited, like a kid at Christmas. I was really tired, and just wanted to find a way to get him off the phone. He asked if I had looked at my bank statements online that day. I thought that was a weird question and said no. He practically yelled at me to logon to my computer. I felt like it would be the only way to get rid of him, so I sat down at the small kitchen table in my one-bedroom condo and opened my laptop. I kept him on the phone and when I logged in and saw my bank account, it looked the same – $400 in the red. Getting a bit fed up, I told him it looked as dreary as usual and was about to hang up when he told me to look at my mortgage statement. I navigated to that tab, and what I saw almost dropped me on the floor. If I hadn’t had him on the other end of the line telling me it was true I would have thought it was a bank error. He said,
“The Happy Hatter’s helper came into the bank today. She walked right up to my window and said that she had a bank draft to deposit onto a mortgage owing. The amount was huge so I had to call my manager to oversee and confirm the transaction. The bank draft was legit and she told me that she wanted to pay of your mortgage. Your mortgage!” he repeated, almost in awe.
The balance on my mortgage statement was indeed zero. I immediately thought it was some elaborate practical joke, but I knew my friend wouldn’t do that to me. I sat on the floor and cried.”
She had a small frown between her brows as she told her story, as if still in disbelief that it had happened. She shook her head, as if to bring herself back to reality.
After our late lunch, Jaime walked me back to my rental car.
“Are you sure you can find your way out of here?” she asked.
“Yup, I took good mental notes when I followed you over, I’ll be fine.”
I opened my car door and just before I climbed in, I turned to her and asked,
“You know that riddle with the doctor?”
She tilted her head in question, a small frown creasing her already lined forehead. I continued,
“Well, anyway, I think it’s a woman. This ‘Happy Hatter’, it’s a woman isn’t it?”
Jaime just smiled at me and turned away humming the same tune I had heard under her breath all afternoon. I finally recognized the Sarah McLachlan song and smiled to myself at how fitting it was:
She’s building a mystery…