By and large this is my favorite time of year. I’m not speaking of Thanksgiving, per se. Not even of Christmas. I’m speaking of this small window between them, that one week or so when everything is seen with magical eyes and a thankful heart.
Archives for November 2009
Just about this time last year my friend Terri took her mother to dinner at their favorite restaurant. Buffet-style Southern cooking in the truest sense, complete with a hunk of fat in the green beans. All you can eat for only ten dollars. A steal. They ate and enjoyed the sort of company that only a mother and daughter can. They talked and laughed and tried to both remember and forget.
Then it happened.
Halfway through her chicken fried steak, Terri happened to look up and find the smile that had been on her mother’s face was gone, replaced by a pained look of perplexity. Her mother had put her knife and fork down to take a sip of tea and had forgotten how to use them. Still unsure but still hungry, she did what seemed most logical—she scooped a handful of fried apples into one hand, a handful of corn pudding into the other, and continued eating.
“It was like having a three-year-old at the table again,” Terri told me.
I suppose that was the case. Alzheimer’s has a way of reducing adults to children in a tortuous rewinding of the mind’s timepiece.
Terri never noticed the man sitting alone in the booth across from them. Never saw him watching as she carefully moved to her mother’s side, cleaned off the apples and the corn, and then proceeded to feed her. She never saw him smile as she and her mother continued right on with their laughter and conversation.
But she did see him rise from his booth and make his way to their table.
“I’ve never seen a daughter so full of patience and a mother so full of love,” he told her. “It’d be an honor if I could pay for your meal.”
He placed a ten dollar bill on the table, smiled, and left.
That small act of kindness and appreciation could have ended there, but it didn’t. Terri and her mother now had ten dollars they didn’t feel they deserved. Using the money to pay for their meal wouldn’t do, then. But what would? After much discussion, they decided to donate the money to the local food bank. Ten dollars bought four canned hams. Four hams for four families who would otherwise go without. And no one should go without, especially during the holidays.
That’s the story of the ten dollar blessing. And it’s gotten me thinking.
I’ve heard tell that life is all about circles, about beginning and ending and beginning again. I think there’s something to that. And not just when it comes to life, but when it comes to what’s been bestowed to us. A stranger in a small-town restaurant felt blessed enough by watching a daughter care for her mother to pay for their meal. That daughter and mother in turn felt blessed enough by him to give the money to those in need. They continued the circle, and by doing so they revealed one of the great truths of existence—
God does not intend for us to be the keepers of our blessings, but mere borrowers of them.
It’s no secret this has been a tough year for most everyone. Money’s tight and jobs are scarce. But even more than that there seems to be a thick fog of cynicism hanging over us. We’re tired. Stressed. Afraid. We’re running low on the essentials—hope and faith and the power of grace.
So this year I’m proposing a return to what Christmas really means—the giving of a gift without the expectation of return. An expression of love and encouragement. A lifting up of the spirit.
Sometimes the best way to pick yourself up is to pick up someone else. And in that light, I’m asking for a favor. I’m asking that you set aside a few dollars and bless someone. It doesn’t have to be ten, doesn’t have to be five. Let it be as much or as little as your situation deems possible. The amount doesn’t matter. It’s what you do with what you have.
In the coming weeks katdish and I will set up a blog carnival for you to share what you did, whom you blessed, and how it changed you. And trust me, it will change you.
‘Tis the season for joy and song and laughter. For miracles. And it’s come at just the right time, because there are many who need all four. Yet while we pray for God’s blessing and while we embrace that Christmas magic, let’s not forget that God often gives joy and song and laughter not through the divine intervention, but through the feeble hands of mere mortals like you and me.
My sixteenth Thanksgiving meal was the first one eaten without my family present. Also my last. Because I learned my lesson.
My girlfriend’s family was planning the mother of all Thanksgiving feasts. Everything was to be meticulously planned and prepared by the family matriarch, a hard-looking woman who chain smoked Marlboro 100s but did so with a whiff of proper daintiness that harkened back to her ancient Virginian roots.
Meals would be served in four courses and include fancy table settings, crystal glasses, and food I couldn’t pronounce. Relatives far and wide were more summoned than invited. A new dining room table was purchased just to accommodate the thirty or so people. “It’s going to be quite the soiree,” my girlfriend said. “Can you come?”
For two reasons. One was that I was her boyfriend and so had boyfriend obligations. Second was that her family was what I referred to as Important People. Successful and powerful and rich. They drove BMWs and wore J. Crew and ruminated over the stock market. They were, in essence, both everything my own family was not and everything I wanted to become.
I had no reservations about going because I wasn’t likely to miss anything of real substance at home. They Coffey version of Thanksgiving celebration involved little more than a turkey, some stuffing, and my own relatives gathered around a simple pine table. People who drove trucks and wore Wal-Mart and talked about hunting. Not that there was anything wrong with that. There wasn’t. I just thought that maybe it was time I broadened my horizons and saw how the other half lived.
So I went. And my girlfriend was right, it was quite the swanky affair. Fancy people arriving in fancy cars to eat fancy food. You would think all of that would translate into a fancy time. But then again, some things get lost in translation.
For one, I soon learned that all the wealth and power my girlfriend’s family had accumulated resulted in some bad feelings. Some were jealous of others, others were angry at some, and it seemed all of them had something against somebody. The meal, tastefully prepared, was given without prayer. And the table that was bought specifically to bring so many people together didn’t. Squabbles broke out. Arrogance was displayed. Pettiness was front and center. And before long my girlfriend’s mother, the properly dainty matriarch, jumped up from her seat and ran like a mad woman for her smokes, screaming through her tears that she “should have never done this!”
I sat there, lost in wonder at the sight. Here were people who had worked hard and labored much to enjoy the fruits of success, only to find that they had lost one another and a bit of perspective in the process. Far from being one of the family, I had been relegated to mere spectator. Which was fine with me. Those people were nuts.
My girlfriend had become accustomed to the shouts and accusations. She leaned over just as her mother slammed the front door and said, “Life’s a beach, huh?”
She said that often. And it seemed to me as though her family had lived up to that philosophy. They had all staked their claim on the shoreline and built their castles, marveled and worshipped them even, and then forgot that it was all sand in the end.
The good life didn’t look so good to me. If that was having it all, then I’d rather keep my nothing. So I did the only thing I could. I left. Quietly and politely.
I went back home, back to the plain food served on the plain kitchen table to my plain relatives. Back to a place where the bonds of God and family held true not merely for one day a year, but all of them. And you know, that wasn’t just the best Thanksgiving meal I’d ever had, it was also the best Thanksgiving period.
Because that was when I learned I shouldn’t just be thankful for what I had, but for what I didn’t.
There are more than a few people in this world who believe my wife to be a super hero. She cooks and cleans and straightens and is the official boo-boo kisser of the house. She also serves as both shepherdess and policewoman for a ragtag bunch of fourth graders who both absolutely love and mostly obey her. So yeah, I get the whole super hero thing. I really do.
But like all super heroes, my wife isn’t impervious to everything. Like Superman and Kryptonite, she has a chink in her armor.
Luckily, she has me there to make sure that chink doesn’t get any bigger. Every super hero needs a sidekick to serve as comic relief and to get into trouble now and then. That’s me.
But also like any sidekick, I have a job to do. Robin saved Batman more than once, and how many times did all those whales and sharks come through for Aqua Man? And I tend to save my wife. A lot.
To find out what that chink is and what sort of saving I do, head on over to katdish’s blog. Chances are you have your own sidekick who does this sort of thing…
Lately I’ve taken my lunch at the park, enjoying a bit of the country in the middle of the city. I’ll park my truck by the baseball field, climb a small hill to sit on a smaller bench, and stare across the street. Just to see if it’ll happen, finally happen, today.
The facelifted but tired house is home to a family I’ve never met and a young man I’ve come to know only from a distance. Ten or so from the looks of him. All boy. Grass-stained Levi’s, alternating Transformer and John Deere T-shirts, and a filthy baseball cap. Always the cap. Homeschooled too, I suppose, since he’s home every day and I’ve yet to see a truancy officer.
For about a week I sat and watched him take scraps of plywood and two-by-fours from behind his father’s shed, gather the pile in the middle of the driveway, and proceed to hammer and nail every boy’s first serious attempt at engineering—a ramp. It started small, not much more than a pine speed bump. But either his ambitions or an innate love for hammering and nailing got the better of him, and that bump got bigger. Much bigger. So much so that the upper part of the curve on the finished product nearly came to the bill of his cap.
This was someone not merely content to give a gentle tug at gravity’s suppressive bonds. No, he wanted to break them with impunity. To fly.
He hammered the last nail a week ago and then pulled a muddy bike out of the shed, backed it up a good twenty feet, and climbed on. And then climbed off. A practice run, I supposed. The next day he actually pedaled halfway to the ramp. Halfway and half-hearted. And like any act undertaken with half a heart, it was doomed to fail. He squeezed the handlebars just as the front tire went from pavement to plywood.
And that’s how it’s been since. Every day I come here for my lunch, and every day he inches closer to that ramp but never quite close enough. And right now he’s there again, sitting on his bike and staring.
I know why.
From where I’m sitting I can look to my right at a tight circle of iron tracks. The train runs at the park during the warmer months and is quite the attraction, both for the kids and the parents who once were kids.
As a child I was terrified of the train, convinced the tunnel on the far side was in fact a door to the underworld that swung only one way. Boarding it would mean the end of me. I would race through the tunnel and be swallowed by it, lost in the darkness forever. When I turned eight, I knew it was time to put up or shut up. I rode the train. I jumped. And to my unbridled delight I found that not only did the tunnel have an entrance, it had an exit as well.
And I can look to my left and see the spot where as a teenager I parked one Saturday night and listened as my girlfriend serenaded me with Poison’s “I Won’t Forget You,” promising to never-ever-ever if I just fell in love with her. I liked the sound of that, so I jumped. She forgot about me three months later.
Which is why I understand the boy’s apprehension. It’s tough to jump. Tough to gather the nerve. Because you never know what’s going to happen after. You never know if you’ll land or crash, laugh or cry. And so we all sit and stare and wonder whether the chance to fly is worth the risk to fall. The good things in life are like that. They cost much but are worth more.
I look out over the park and see him tug on the bill of his cap. He rubs his hands and adjusts the pedals, positioning them just so for the right amount of initial oomph. And just as I think he’s about to squeeze the handlebars again, he doesn’t. He pushes harder. His eyes open wide.
And he jumps.
It’s a twofer today, folks. I’m also guest posting over at my friend Bridget Chumbley’s place, One Word at a Time. If you don’t know Bridget, you really should. She’s a great lady and a fantastic writer. So hop over there and find out why us guys are so necessary. Hope to see you there!
“Just lift it,” Ralph said. “Easy…just a little…now over.”
I did just as he said, but the mangled piece of metal refused to catch. I grunted. This was not going well.
“Sorry,” I told Cindy.
“You don’t have to apologize,” she said. “This is all my fault, anyway. I’m such a ditz.”
“Oh, geez,” Mary said from behind us. “Don’t say that. I did this once when my kids were just babies. And they were in the car.”
Ralph and I looked back at Mary. She shrugged and said, “It happens.”
Ralph agreed, saying that he’d done the same thing with his tractor once. But that was in the middle of his two hundred acres and not the parking lot of the grocery store. Which made it worse, he said. “That was a long walk. Both ways.”
They were right, of course. At some point everyone locked their keys in the car. It was a rite of passage, whether from childhood to adulthood or adulthood to senility.
It was the noise that had attracted me. Frustration marked by the repetitive thumping of a door handle that would not budge. Ralph was already there, a fellow passerby on his way into the store for bread and a carton of Red Man. His hands were tucked inside his overalls and his cowboy hat was cocked against the setting sun. Hey surveyed the situation with all the patience a farmer must have.
Mary, too, was already there. Her and Cindy had unknowingly parked beside one another. They were strangers going in but now acquaintances in the parking lot.
Thumpthumpthump as Cindy tried again.
“Don’t think that’s a’gonna work, ma’am,” Ralph advised as I neared them.
“Excuse me,” Mary called out, “you wouldn’t happen to have a coat hanger?”
I answered that I did not and walked over to them. All three caught me up to speed in a short amount of time, the gist being that Cindy had to get home, couldn’t, and had no one to call.
“Maybe they’ll have one inside,” Mary offered. “I’ll go check.”
She returned a few moments later hefting a wire coat hanger into the air like the spoils of war. It was a turning point, or so we thought. But I’d never actually attempted the semi-felonious act and had no idea what to do. Ralph did, but lacked the dexterity to hook the lock just right. The combination of our skills resulted in two small scratches (one on me, the other on Cindy’s car) and no entry.
“Such a ditz,” Cindy said again, though I thought that comment may have been given in my direction.
“No more’n the rest of us, ma’am,” answered Ralph.
“Maybe you should call a locksmith,” Mary offered. “Doesn’t look like we’re making too much headway here.”
Neither Ralph nor I took exception to that, even though in the handbook of manhood calling a locksmith was tantamount to stopping to ask for directions. But the evening was wearing on and we all had places to go.
“Maybe so,” Cindy said.
Ralph nodded. I shrugged.
Mary went back inside to fetch a phonebook and returned victorious yet again with news that someone was on the way.
“Thank you all so much,” Cindy said. “Really. I was afraid I’d be standing here trying to figure out what to do all by myself.”
It wasn’t the words as much as the feeling behind them that gave me pause. This was no mere thanks, no empty platitude of appreciation. Cindy meant what she said. Meant it to her very core.
The fact that none of us had really done anything of merit to help the situation didn’t seem to matter. What mattered was that she hadn’t been alone to face it. In fact, at that moment, standing there and hearing those words echo through me, I honestly believed the company of three strangers was worth the whole embarrassing ordeal. It taught her something.
It taught me something, too.
Because the word “community” always conjured in my head towns or neighborhoods or churches. Things set in place, hardened and tethered by geography.
But that wasn’t true, was it? Not there in the parking lot of the grocery store with four strangers. With us, community became something spontaneous created out of need. It moved fluid, tethered not to a place but to wherever we happened to be.
And I thought then that was God’s definition of community, where there were no boundaries to separate us and where strangers were really friends we have yet to meet.
To read more posts on the topic of Community, visit the blog carnival hosted by Bridget Chumbley at One Word at a Time.