In this memoir, I wanted to dive in on two individual stories to outline the importance of relationships in a community outreach situation. The physical action of holding a box in a food line may be an expression of compassion as it provides temporary relief from a burden, but some may not truly appreciate the assistance. Some refuse it, and some grudgingly accept, while others wholeheartedly appreciate the assistance. However, the lasting impact is often found in the interaction that follows from the compassionate act. Physical assistance may seem a loss of independence, but interaction is always empowerment. In this memory, loving my neighbor was not fulfilled by a passive roll call, but an active role. This is a reflection on the active benefit, and also possibly a persuasive voice, urging you do the same. Mostly, I want to tug your empathy strings with detailed, yet natural descriptions of real people engaging with one another. I want to remind you why relationships matter so much more than a single meal from Jacob’s Well. Hopefully you can see in this piece that both parties benefit from the interaction. I especially came away from the experience with joy, and I wanted to weave that into this account.
Drawing from the Well
I stood frozen in the First Presbyterian parking lot, trying to make myself available. It was the last Saturday of the month, a day designated for food distribution to the community’s hungry through Jacob’s Well and the Lincoln Food Bank. I was a volunteer, tasked with assisting those in line.
The wind bit through the lining in my gloves and hat, numbing the dry skin farthest from my beating heart. I waddled for the sake of movement, closer to the tables where bare fingers gripped frigid metal cans of beans and vegetables. A mother stood before me with her nose hidden beneath the collar of her jacket, staring absentmindedly at a young girl’s pink jacket. Her eyes refused to move, and I cleared my throat to spark some enthusiasm in my voice.
“Excuse me! Would you like any help with carrying?” That same offer, so gentle and open, was often turned down. Clearly struggling, a fragile elderly woman had earlier responded that she could handle it herself. A gruff man had bellowed through his mustache that he knew how to carry a box. Others had wordlessly shuffled past, as if to shun the offer.
A gust nearly evaporated the young mother’s tired reply, but in its trail, I made out the words, “thank you.” I quickly dislodged my fists from my pockets to receive her light burden, and for the first time she looked at me with uninteresting hazel eyes, slightly averted from mine. As she rearranged the weight in my arms, I felt compelled to return thanks she would not understand.
We bypassed cans of beans, then tomatoes, and my curiosity prodded. This mother was the first to dismiss so much free food. Her children were picky eaters, she explained, and wouldn’t touch the vegetables. I learned that marinara chicken nuggets were the favorite household dish, so I jokingly suggested serving diced chicken breast with a secret sauce of pulverized canned tomatoes. She gave a small breath of laughter and softly lowered a bag of the chicken onto the cardboard.
At the end of the food line, I offered to walk her to her car, eliciting from her a fumbling string of gratitude and apology. I promised her I was glad to help. “Without all those vegetables in here, it’s really not a problem of being too heavy.”
After less than half a block, the woman indicated a red Jeep Liberty parked next to the curb. After only a short time with her, I felt there was still something unfinished. “So,” I tried for one last go, “your kids must keep you pretty busy?”
“Yeah, they can be quite a handful,” she admitted. Her voice was rough and tender, and it seemed in her expression that she thought of them often. I wondered aloud how many and she surprised me with a full hand. Five kids, ages nine, five, three, two, and one. “It’s the nine-year-old’s birthday tomorrow, and I still need to get him a present.”
“You must work hard to keep them in line,” I marveled. She laughed in agreement. Then after a click of the trunk, she began moving towards the driver’s side door. “I’m sorry, I never caught your name.”
“Sharon,” she said.
After picking up a new box from the pile, I returned to my post by the beans, thinking of the five tomato-hating kids and Sharon’s love, so determined to keep them happy. My thoughts dissolved, and my absent gaze reorganized ahead of me where the man behind the beans table had spoken. “You want any beans? You with the box.” I hesitated, and with a beckoning finger, he insisted.
“I’m just helping carry,” I began to explain, but instead I tripped over laughter at his mischievous expression. He was trying hard to look deadpan and businesslike, with a pile of cans stacked up to his chin in his arms.
“You got a box, you get beans,” he reasoned. When I had stopped in front of him, he spilled all of his cans over the table, pushing them out quickly as if he might miss the opportunity. Beans went cascading to the ground and rolling across the table, and only a few made it into their box. Taken aback, I decided to collect the strays.
When I looked back, he was grinning wildly, so I obliged him with a thank you. “I’m very grateful for all these,” I explained, “but I don’t think it’s fair that I get a whole armful!” My voice was joking along with him now. “What will I do with them all? I think I’ll have to give them back.”
“Oh, no you don’t. You got a box, you get beans. Now move along.”
I tried repeatedly to sneak my bounty back over the line where there was a pile in the back, but the man kept his jokingly somber eyes alert to my movements. Whenever I came near, he sternly shook his finger. He reminded me of my grandpa.
The man was not a volunteer but one of the hungry. Helping distribute food for Jacob’s Well earned him extra tickets in line. After the morning had ended, he reached for his cane and his own box of allotted food and made for his car. Before leaving, the man found me and introduced himself as Dave. He said, “Before you go, I got to explain something you might have been wondering.
“In the summer, my wife had surgery on her right hip.” He indicated his left, caught himself, and patted the right. “Her right hip. And just last month, she had surgery on the left. So she’s had two surgeries now, and has been all kinds of pain. And this year she hit menopause,” he chuckled, “so I haven’t had much pleasure lately.” The way he pronounced it was like playsure.
“When I saw you standing there with the empty box, I decided: victim! So thanks for letting me target you. You were a good sport.” He shook my hand, and patted me on the back as I turned. “And before you go…” Here, he reached into his coat pocket, leaning on his cane, and produced a simple, white business card. B&D Toys. “That’s Betty and Dave – Betty’s my wife. It’s in that order because the B comes first in the alphabet.”
“Oh? I would have thought it was because she’s the boss.” He smiled with his scruffy cheek. “Thank you,” I said. “And good job getting rid of all those beans. I know they weren’t everyone’s favorite, so you must have been quite the salesman.”
“I worked them pretty good.” As I turned to go, I noticed his eyes were watering with the wind.