I was reading the blog of a friend today, Anny Cook, and found my hands shaking as I did. Anny wrote about the way so few in our world have so much and so many have so little. And in the face of Thanksgiving, she wrote how it was a shame that so much was wasted while so many went without. It was a bit painful to read. Not because it held anything I didn't already know, but because it made me remember things I'd rather forget.
When I was growing up my family was one of those standing in line at the food pantry. I remember well "Reagan cheese", those big blocks of processed cheesefood the government handed out. They sometimes made the difference (along with all the pennies cleaned out of the couch and car to buy bread) between eating and goin without. We were one of those who waited in line at the Salvation Army hoping there would be something for us when we got to the front. We weren't homeless. We had a roof over our heads that often we had to share with unwanted multi-legged squatters.
We were also often filled to the brim with strays my mother collected. For all the problems she and I have in our relationship, my mother has an enormous heart. She never passed by someone in need. To this day she continues, taking in foster children that are often rejected by others because of emotional or learning problems.
What we often didn't have was enough. Enough food, enough money, enough, enough, enough.
I grew up as the child standing in the doorway, watching bright eyed as the local firefighters and police, or the local Jaycees, brought in a box of food for the holidays. A box that would last us a couple of days even after allowing us a real holiday dinner. I was the child who woke up on Christmas morning knowing that the toys under the tree hadn't come from Santa, but from the Salvation Army.
There were times when we didn't have running water, either because the pipes froze and there was no money to call a plumber or because we couldn't afford the water bill and it had been shut off. I remember carrying 5 gallon buckets of water from the laundrymat across the street to use. There were times when we had no heat because the electricity had been shut off because my mother chose to feed her children, or buy that bottle of cough syrup, over paying the bill.
My grandparents tried to help, but there was only so much they could do.
One holiday I remember the most occured when I was in college. I was living on $800 a month, my grad assistant's stipend and a few dollars made working in one of the dorm food services. I wasn't supposed to be allowed to have two campus jobs, but my food service boss and my grad advisor petitioned for me and earned me a waiver. With that income, I could cover my share of the rent, but very little else.
The woman who was my food service boss was wonderful, as were most the people working for her. Joe, the dishroom boss would sneak plates back to two of us who worked in his domain, but who lived off campus so we weren't technically allowed to eat. We were grateful. Liz, the main boss, did more than turn a bind eye when Joe and some of the others slipped us a plate or gathered up the leftovers and let us take them home instead of disposing of them as they were supposed to do.
One night, near Thanksgiving, she must have over heard us talking --or her son Greg who was a friend of mine ratted me out. At that point I'd been living on spaghetti noodles and anything I could find to put on them including packets of dried, Campbell's cheese soup given to me when my grandmother cleaned out her pantry. Rice was another good one. A bit of butter and sugar and you had enough carbs to fill you up for while.
I was sitting in the apartment. I didn't have the money to go home that holiday. A knock sounded on my door and it was Greg. He was carrying bags of groceries. He proceeded to ignore my protests as he carried in food his mother had sent.
I was only one person. Just one student out of so many who were struggling. I don't know if she did the same for some of the others who were working for her. I have a feeling from the pile of grocery bags I saw in the back of the family stationwagon that night, that she did.
I try each year to make sure I do something to pay back Liz, those firefighters and police officers, the Jaycees, the Salvation Army people and the countless others who made the difference again and again when I was growing up. A difference between nothing and something. Not for them and not for me, but for someone else. Whether it's donating money to The United Way, taking names from the Angel trees, giving to Toys for Tots, or just making sure the children in my own family have something under the tree and on the Thanksgiving table every year, it's important to me to try repay a debt that I know I never can.