When I enrolled in the huge university downstate from my small Midwestern town, I had some trepidations. Once I got there, my trepidations turned to paralyzing fear. The crowds, incessant noise, and confusion overwhelmed me. My peers were savoring their first real taste of freedom from parental restrictions, testing the limits of their tolerance for alcohol, filling the halls with the sounds of the Beatles, the Stones, and Jimi Hendrix. My sheltered life had ill prepared me for this world. I listened to Peter, Paul and Mary and played classical piano. My mother had spent the summer sewing me a “wardrobe” of mix-and-match skirts and blouses.
I called Mom and Dad. “Please come get me,” I begged. “I hate it here.” They would be there in five hours, Mom said, her words clipped. I used the time to withdraw officially from the university, having gone through the incredible ordeal of registering just the day before.
I had been unable to eat in the cafeteria, and was weak and teary by the time my folks arrived. They were hungry, too, so we stopped for a meal on our way out of town. As I waited for my soup, I stared down at the purse in my lap, the leather still stiff. Mom had bought it for me just a few weeks before, along with new underwear, luggage, and a year’s supply of toiletries.
I couldn’t bring myself to look into my parents’ eyes. I didn’t want to see the disappointment there. I mumbled that I had received a check for the room-and-board refund. My tuition payment was being transferred to the branch commuter campus in my hometown, where I would enroll on Monday. Then I steeled myself for a lecture: something about finishing what you start, not giving up, tackling challenges head-on.
My father cleared his throat. “Your mother and I were talking on the way down here,” he began.
I held my breath.
“We decided we can use that room-and-board money to buy you a used car,” he said. “You’ll be needing one if you’re going to school in town. We’ll go out looking tomorrow.”
Then he added, “It’s going to be great having you home.”
I met Jack when I was twenty and he was thirty. We were drawn to each other immediately, as if by some powerful force; but this was no new-age cosmic connection. Jack was the antithesis of new age. He believed in tobacco, caffeine, Wild Turkey, and (I later discovered) speed — in particular Desbutal, an upper with a mellow high. His rotting teeth, while a bother, were for him a source of starving-artist pride. He was a brilliant photographer, an anti-intellectual. He laughed tenderly when I told him I was a writer; he claimed he never read anymore, but only looked at pictures.
We knew from the start that we were not well matched, and I could see that our intense relationship could only end in pain — for me. I was young, if not exactly innocent, and dreamed of a family. He was a confirmed bachelor. Still, we acted out this scripted tragedy, knowing we couldn’t change the ending, yet unable just to walk away.
When the inevitable occurred, being prepared didn’t help me. I was shattered, devastated, suicidal. Jack felt almost as rotten as I did, never having intended to hurt me. Afraid to be alone, I asked him to stay and hold me for one last night. He did.
When he left in the morning, he gave me his most-prized possession, the one thing he could think of that might actually make me feel better. Although he wanted it desperately for himself, he gave me his last, his only Desbutal.
I entered the restaurant quickly, glad to escape the fearful blizzard outside. Before I could even kick the snow from my boots, the rabbi’s warm hand clasped mine. “Shalom aleichem!” he bellowed. “I was thinking of you.”
Though Rabbi T. had seven children to feed, he had mortgaged his home to help a member of his congregation finance this kosher Chinese restaurant. When someone questioned the wisdom of his investment, he replied, “I was trying to save a life. ‘He who saves a life saves the world.’ ” The local rabbinical council, however, had decided that the restaurant owner was not sufficiently orthodox to be awarded a kosher permit, and in the end Rabbi T. had become the sole proprietor of the failing enterprise.
The rabbi led me to a table near the window, saying, “There’s a new dish I want you to try.” And he soon set before me a plate of blue boiled beef.
“An interesting color,” I offered, trying to be kind.
He clapped his hands in glee. “I added a little food coloring to make it more exotic. Isn’t it great?”
The restaurant was empty but for myself and a scruffy-looking man drinking alone in the opposite corner. As the man rose unsteadily to leave, Rabbi T. went over to help him on with his coat. But instead of reaching for the threadbare raincoat over the back of the man’s chair, the rabbi placed his own fur-lined winter coat over the customer’s shoulders. I picked at my blue beef as Rabbi T. gently escorted his patron to the door.
The rabbi knew nothing of the restaurant business, I thought, and no doubt would lose everything in this doomed enterprise. But I was amazed by the wonderfully sweet flavor of the blue beef. I’ve tasted nothing like it since.
J. H. Korda
Years ago, while out on a job as a handyman, I had my car stolen in broad daylight on a busy San Francisco street. It was an old car, a 1977 Toyota Celica, and represented no huge financial loss itself, but in the trunk were most of my tools: my circular saw and sabre saw and handsaws; my electric drill with thirty years’ worth of attachments, bits, and accessories; my big red toolbox with most of my hand tools and an extensive collection of miscellaneous hardware; and various other minor necessities. In one stroke, I had been put completely out of business.
I regretfully informed my clients of what had happened. Their response was extraordinary. One of the first I called said, “You know, my late husband had many tools; they’re packed away down in the basement. Why don’t you have a look and take what you can use.” It turned out she had a good-sized toolbox with a fine selection of hand tools, along with an ancient, but still working, electric drill and a set of bits. She simply gave me all of it.
Hearing the bad news, one of my neighbors gave me a sabre saw and a circular saw he hadn’t used for years. My landlord had a collection of tools, and since he was not terribly handy himself — and I was, after all, the building handyman — he decided I should have them.
Within a few weeks, nearly all my hand and power tools were replaced by gifts from friends and loyal clients. But I still didn’t have a car. Without one, how could I get around to jobs? Simple: clients picked me up, brought me to their homes, and took me back to my house at the end of the day.
About a month after my car was stolen, I ran into an old friend. When he learned of the theft, he told me his old car had been sitting in the garage for five years: if I could get it running, it was mine. I had it towed to my mechanic, who, after a lot of head shaking, succeeded in bringing it back to life.
Just before I was to pick up my friend’s car from the mechanic, the police called to say my car had been found sitting on the street collecting parking tickets for eleven weeks. The thief had never even looked in the trunk; all my tools were still there. I sold the newly repaired car to cover the mechanic’s bill, and found myself with virtually two complete sets of tools.
A few months later, a neighbor’s garage was broken into and nearly all her tools were stolen. I can’t tell you how sweet it was to say, “What do you need?”
Mark A. Hetts
San Francisco, California
Until six years ago, I used to drive every day from Connecticut to an area of the South Bronx known as Mott Haven to buy drugs. Crack was sold on one block, heroin on another. I usually bought my crack first.
I would often see a young girl standing by herself in the decrepit lobby of the crack dealers’ building. She was about sixteen and very pretty, but her eyes were crazy. I felt sorry for her because I could tell she had never known anything but trouble in her life. At least she had a right to be a crack addict, though. I was a preppie from Connecticut who had grown up with every privilege, and had become an addict for no apparent reason.
I would buy a lot of crack at a time; I liked to open half the vials and pour the contents on the floor, so there’d be lots for me to find later when I was on my hands and knees looking for more. One day, I bought about a hundred vials, taped together in long sheets like belts of machine-gun bullets. The dealer was handing them to me when all of a sudden the crazy-eyed girl rushed and tried to grab the drugs. I yelled and shoved her back violently, and she glared at me like a wild animal. Shaken, I hid the crack under my shirt and drove off in my Volvo to buy my heroin.
Now I wish I had given the girl a vial or two, just to show her some kindness, even if it was only feeding her addiction. But I had to keep it all for myself.
Katonah, New York
My wife and I and our two young children were vacationing in our old Volkswagen bus. While racing to get to Hershey, Pennsylvania, before nightfall, we saw another VW bus parked on the roadside, its driver waving frantically. I pulled over and got out to see what was the problem. Her bus had a flat tire; she had a spare, but no jack. Another driver had stopped to help, but his jack wouldn’t fit the vehicle. Ours would.
We were running late, and I knew my wife thought I was a little too generous with my time — at least, with other people. Still, I convinced her it wouldn’t take long to help change the tire. And it didn’t, but when we lowered the bus it was obvious that the replacement had scarcely more air in it than the flat. I doubted the tire would make it to the next exit. Our spare, on the other hand, was good, and it occurred to me I might just trade tires with the woman and inflate hers at the next gas station.
Instead, we left. We made Hershey before dark, but I kept wondering how far the woman had gotten on her under-inflated spare. I still regret passing up so simple and obvious an opportunity to be helpful.
In jail, generosity is hard to come by — after all, there just isn’t much of anything to go around. But two prisoners helped me out while I was serving time: a white man named Barrett and a black man named Virgil.
Barrett, a good-looking guy facing twenty-to-life, took me under his wing soon after I arrived and taught me how to do time. We exercised together regularly and played a lot of chess, and he schooled me in jail etiquette: don’t share with blacks, give a courtesy flush after each turd, and so forth.
I met Virgil at Bible study, which he led every night at seven o’clock. He was a big man — six-foot-seven, 320 pounds — with a gold tooth. He was in for killing his white girlfriend’s parents. I would never have admitted it to the other white inmates, but Virgil and I were friends. His Bible study was my solace, and he was very giving of his time. He was the most spiritual man I’d ever met.
When they called my number for release, Barrett was happy to see me go — it was clear to him that I’d never belong there, no matter how hard I tried. I thanked him for teaching me the ropes. On the way out, I passed Virgil, and he mouthed, “God bless you.”
I’ve never corresponded with Barrett, or any other white inmate, but I keep in touch with Virgil and send him money whenever possible. Once, I sent him a TV so that he could watch sports. He always thanks me and says I’m generous. Really, I’m just grateful.
The longer I sit in meditation, the more generous I become. After one sitting, I was moved to give away the stash of money I’d been saving for eight years: just over fifteen hundred dollars. My mom, dad, and sister were all having financial problems, and that money wasn’t helping me in any way, other than making me feel safe. It was obvious that I had to give this money to them, so that it could be of use.
I wrote three letters of thanks and put in five hundred dollars cash with each. Then I drove to their house with lunch and flowers and gave them the envelopes. I made it clear that this gift came not from me, but through me, and that it was necessary for them to accept it in that spirit. They did, and it has never been mentioned again.
When I was nineteen, I lived in Fulton, Missouri, and worked in nearby Columbia. For two years I had to hitchhike to work. I met a lot of interesting people, but one guy stands out: a man in his fifties named John, who worked for a concrete-supply company.
The first time John picked me up he offered me a beer from the cooler he kept in the car. This guy is pretty cool, I thought. For two years after that, every time he saw me — which was often — he gave me a ride. One night, after a couple of beers, John asked, “What time do you have to be home?” No time, I said. So we stopped at this little redneck bar and drank and played pool. Afterward, he asked why I hitchhiked all the time. I told him I couldn’t afford a car. He said, “I have a Plymouth Duster that’s in the shop. It should be fixed by now. Here are the keys.”
The next day, I went to the shop and picked up the car, then drove to where John worked to thank him. I told him I would pay him fifty dollars a month. “No,” he said, “if you’re devoted enough to hitchhike to work every day, I’m giving you this car.”
I had that car for two and a half years.
I grew up poor outside Chicago in the fifties. Many people helped my family out, but my favorites were Evelyn and Elizabeth, two elderly women who worked behind the counter at a local bakery. Evelyn was tall, with thin, cottony hair she dyed bright red, and a sassy voice that sounded like Ethel Merman’s. Elizabeth was built like a fireplug and spoke with a thick accent. I think she identified with my mother, who was also a recent immigrant. I got to know Evelyn and Elizabeth on weekly trips to the bakery with my mother for rye bread — no one else could make it up to my father’s standards.
One day, Elizabeth handed my mother not one but two bags: the bag with the rye bread, and another, larger brown bag. My mother started to protest, but Elizabeth put her finger to her lips. At home, my mother opened the brown bag to find it full of day-old sweet rolls and broken cookies.
After that, every weekday, our phone would ring at about 4:30 P.M., and on the line would be Elizabeth. “Marie,” she’d say to my mother, rolling her r, “send someone down. I’ve got a few t’ings.”
As the oldest girl, I was often the one to run the eight blocks into town before the bakery closed at five. Elizabeth would give me a shopping bag — sometimes two — full of bread and rolls and cookies. One day, someone forgot to pick up a cake at the bakery, and we received a perfect white layer cake with butter-cream frosting and pink-icing roses. If my willpower was strong enough, I’d save a treat for lunch the next day at school: an orange-glazed coffee roll, a cheese danish, or even a frosted sugar cookie to eat before my envious friends.
Several years after our bakery runs began, Evelyn called to say Elizabeth had had a heart attack. She died shortly thereafter. It was the saddest day of my young life.
It’s early in the morning, and I am standing outside the bagel shop on Twenty-Fourth Street. I’ve already bought my bagels, spread them with cream cheese, and placed them in plastic bags with red ribbons at the top. I am waiting to practice generosity.
Here they come, two saffron-robed monks and a mere slip of a nun trailing behind. They are walking the glass-strewn sidewalk barefoot, each holding a big stainless-steel begging bowl. They walk quickly down the hill, past the Rat and Raven Bar, five nail-care salons, and a dozen gourmet coffeehouses, speaking to no one.
As they approach, I step into their path, smiling at the incongruity of the situation: the 1990s intersecting with 500 B.C. I can tell from the first monk’s expression that he is surprised to see me. He has told me that he begs every day and hardly ever gets anything; his discipline forbids him to actually ask for a handout. He practices being grateful for whatever he receives.
Our eyes meet for a moment, and then he quickly lowers his as I place the gaily wrapped package into his bowl. I want him to say thank you, or at least smile, but he remains silent, staring solemnly at the bowl. Having slowed his gait just enough to allow this transaction, he now breaks into his regular invigorating pace. The next monk follows his lead, as does the nun, like a three-segment saffron caterpillar. Before I can take a breath, they have gone by.
As I board the bus for my job, feeling an unaccustomed lightness, I wonder who gave to whom.
San Francisco, California
My second-grade teacher, a young and enthusiastic nun, practically had to fight back tears as she explained to us about the poor, starving “pagan” babies in Africa. They had no food, no clothes, no parents. “Won’t you please give generously to the Catholic Mission Project,” she begged, “so we can save these unfortunate children?”
That night at home, I spread before me the contents of my piggy bank: $7.35. How much to give? In a flash of insight, I realized that, even if I gave it all, I would still have plenty to eat and nice clothes to wear. The only logical thing to do was donate the entire sum.
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. By the time I dropped the fifth quarter into the collection bank, my teacher stopped me: She wanted to know how much money I had in my hand. When I told her, she confiscated the rest, sent me back to my seat, and said she was calling my mother. Burning with embarrassment, I tried to figure out what crime I had committed. She had never called my mother before.
After school, I sat in the classroom with my mother and the nun, who talked about me as though I weren’t there. To my surprise, I was not praised for being generous; I was rebuked for having no sense. When giving to charity, the nun said, a little bit was enough. That was what nice people did. All the children in my class had put one or two coins in the collection bank — no more. They knew what was acceptable. Why didn’t I?
Between them, my mother and the nun decided that I would be allowed to donate one dollar to the mission. I was to put the rest back in my piggy bank and save it. For what? I wondered. A new toy? Candy? I brought my money back home. Apparently, my teacher had not believed her own sad story about the pagan babies. Otherwise, wouldn’t she have accepted every penny she could get for them?
I live among the people that the state of California fears the most, in the security housing unit of maximum-security Pelican Bay Prison. Security housing is a prison within a prison, for men who have been deemed a threat to safety and security in the general population. The only rung lower on the prison ladder is death row.
Here in the security housing unit, we’re treated differently from men in the rest of the prison. If one of us needs to go to the infirmary, he is strip-searched and handcuffed behind the back, then escorted by two guards wearing protective vests. Potato chips, cookies, and other snacks are all removed from their packaging before being given to us, for fear the plastic could be melted down and made into weapons. No physical contact is allowed between us. Our exercise yard is a ten-by-twenty-five-foot concrete box with a video camera at one end. We have no windows. Our clothing consists of jumpsuits that fasten with cloth straps — no metal zippers or snaps. Guards even remove the staples from our magazines before giving them to us.
When I first got here I wasn’t sure what to expect. It would be a few weeks before I could get my property back, so I was stuck in a bare cell with nothing to do except sit and wait. I was the only white guy in the unit, but that didn’t matter to my new neighbors. One sent me a few books to help me pass the time. Another gave me a numbered chess set drawn on paper so that we could play by calling out the moves through the air vent. Someone else sent over magazines, another sent some instant coffee, and still another gave me paper and envelopes so I could write my family.
The guys here didn’t have a lot to give, but they shared what they had.
Crescent City, California
Eighty-three-year-old Anna was dying of cancer. Massive tumors filled her abdomen, protruding in ugly blue and red knots that each day grew bigger. A little seventy-five-pound bird of a woman, Anna lay lost in a massive flotation bed, her kind blue eyes registering fear at the swiftness of her decline.
I’d been assigned Anna’s case by the home-health-care agency where I work. One day, her sister told me Anna hadn’t had a bowel movement in a week. Putting my finger up her rectum, I felt a large amount of hard stool. We tried laxatives and enemas, all without success. Finally, I had to pull the stool out with my fingers — a painful procedure. Though I tried on two different occasions, I couldn’t get it all out.
Then Anna stopped urinating. Pressing on her tender abdomen, I could feel her full bladder. Four times I tried to insert a catheter to drain her bladder, but her labia were so swollen I couldn’t find the opening of the urethra. When I pushed the tube into what I thought was the right spot, this usually stoic woman cried out in pain. I was not only failing at a very basic procedure, I was causing agony. I felt deeply ashamed.
Finally, I explained to Anna that if we didn’t get the catheter into her bladder, the poisons in her urine would back up into her bloodstream and she would die that much sooner — the choice was hers.
She called her family into the bedroom, and I went to sit in the kitchen, where I wallowed in self-accusations, oblivious to the beautiful view of the ocean.
Anna’s family came out and told me she didn’t want any more catheters or disimpactions; she only wanted to be comfortable. “In that case,” I said, “she has about two weeks left.” Then I went in to tell Anna I’d be back in a few days to see how she was doing. “No more of this bad stuff,” I promised.
She looked at me with clear eyes and said, “Thank you.” There was such kindness in her voice that I knew she had forgiven me for my ineptitude — something I doubt I would have been able to do in her place. Driving home, I felt absolved of all the pain I had caused her.
Her cracked, dirty, thick toenails were the first thing we kids noticed about Flippo. That’s what we called her: Flippo. Not Mrs. Flippo, as you might expect. Just Flippo. She spent the summer days hunkered down on the single step leading to her warped and unpainted front porch. All the kids in the neighborhood played with the various toys that somehow ended up in her dusty front yard. Occasionally we wandered into her cool, dark house for a drink of water. “Go on in there and get you a cup of water, baby,” she’d say. “You know where it is.” Her voice was as rough as tree bark from decades of smoking unfiltered cigarettes, one of which was always dangling from between her fingers.
Flippo treated us like her own, and couldn’t understand why the grumpy old man next door wouldn’t let us pick up the apples that fell from his tree and rotted on the ground. She couldn’t stand to see any child unhappy, and would wrap a crying toddler in her big arms and rock and croon until the weeping ceased. And she could laugh. Lord, how she laughed when she told me about the time my uncle — drunk, as usual — wandered into our neighbors’ house thinking it was ours: “Girl, I can just see him, staggering around that man’s living room at three in the morning, telling him, ‘Get outta my brother’s house!’ ”
I doubt Flippo had two dimes to rub together, but she gave us her time and attention. Though I don’t know what ultimately became of her, whenever I think of her it’s a sunny Virginia day, and I am not alone.
Erica L. Davis-Williams
High Point, North Carolina
I was standing in the small Department of Motor Vehicles office in Canon City, Colorado, trying to arrange a driving test so I could get my new license. The trouble was I’d lost the registration for my car, and the DMV clerk wouldn’t allow me to take the test in an officially unlicensed vehicle. I had driven sixty miles for nothing. I was about to turn around and walk out when a friendly voice came from behind me: “Well, honey, you can use my car.”
I swung around, startled, and politely smiled at the woman, whom I’d never seen before. “Thank you, but no. You can’t just let a stranger take your car.” I turned back around and saw the DMV clerk’s brow wrinkled in disbelief.
The woman tapped my shoulder and insisted, “No, really, take my car. I’ll have a soda, and when you come back I’ll take my test. Then we’ll both get our new pictures.” She smiled at me warmly. Again I protested, but she waved her hand dismissively, shuffling me outside and off toward her car. She kept calling me “honey” and “dear,” and didn’t even bother to ask my name before handing me her keys.
When I saw her car, I stopped. It was gleaming white and immaculate with a crushed red velour interior and automatic everything. Parked beside it was my ancient, faded blue, beat-up two-door sedan, never washed or waxed, covered in red desert dust, with a rusted bike rack and a partially shattered windshield. I didn’t tell her it was mine.
As the DMV clerk and I drove away in the sparkling white car, I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw this gracious woman smiling and waving.
When it was all over, both the woman with the white car and I had new driver’s licenses. It turned out she was a minister’s wife from Texas, which may explain her faith in me. She trusted me when I could barely trust myself. Maybe that’s what faith is all about. I still haven’t decided whether I’m a believer or skeptic, but I know there’s a woman out there with a big smile and a polished white car who’s a truly generous soul.
In 1932, in Worcester, Massachusetts, I was born into the only family in the neighborhood that did not vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt in that year’s election — the only family with a regular income. Growing up, I received beautiful dolls for Christmas and birthdays, but I didn’t play with them. I found bouncing balls, skates, and sleds far more appealing.
When I turned nine, my family moved to Northboro, a small farm town, and I entered fourth grade in a yellow clapboard schoolhouse that smelled of floor wax, damp wool, and sardine sandwiches. Mary Sutter sat in front of me and became my friend. She lived in an old, sagging red house and carried around a rubber baby doll with no clothes and only one arm. She’d found it in the dump.
One day, when my mother wasn’t home, I invited Mary over, took her up to the attic, and showed her all my expensive dolls. She gasped when she saw them and put her hands behind her back, examining each one without touching. I had to make her hold one — a Shirley Temple doll. She hugged it and rocked on her heels. Then I pulled my shiny black doll carriage out from under a stack of Christmas boxes, and we put the doll in the carriage and carried it downstairs and outside to play with. When it was time for Mary to go home, I told her she could have the doll and the carriage. After all, they meant nothing to me.
She smiled — a wide, lopsided grin — and, as she began wheeling the carriage home, I saw tears streaking her muddy cheeks.
A few weeks later, my mother discovered that the Shirley Temple doll and the doll carriage were missing. I told her I had given them away.
“You did what?” she asked.
“I gave them away.”
“How could you?” she said. “They’re very expensive.”
I couldn’t lift my head.
“Don’t you dare give anything away without asking me first — do you hear me?”
FDR died when I was twelve. Everyone at school wept — except me.
Evelyn C. McNeilly
Huntington Beach, California
When I was a senior in college, my step-grandmother told me she wanted to start buying a china dinnerware set for me. I visualized some of the beautiful patterns I’d seen in department stores. Then she informed me that her local supermarket had four patterns from which to choose. Each week, she would buy a different piece or two with her groceries. Telling myself I should be thankful they weren’t paper plates, I expressed my gratitude.
Several months later, for Christmas, I got the salt and pepper shakers. College graduation brought a serving dish. On my birthday I received the creamer. Next Christmas it was the sugar bowl. Then came the cups and saucers, in two installments. My wedding gift was the gravy boat. I was starting to think it would be my Golden Anniversary before I had a complete set of dinnerware.
Finally, my mother told my step-grandmother, “Enough is enough! She needs it now. Give her the rest of the set, or take it all back.” There was a tense moment when I thought I might be returning my new gravy boat, but I went home with the remainder of the set. The victory, however, was bittersweet. It wasn’t the cost or quality of the china that bothered me; it was the spirit in which the “gift” had been given.
I was never so glad to sell something at a yard sale as I was those dishes.
When I was eleven years old, my family moved to a house in the country. The school bus came every morning to take me to school several miles away.
One morning, a normally gregarious girl boarded the bus with her eyes downcast and her long auburn hair shielding her face. She proceeded down the aisle toward the seat in front of me, where she always sat with her best friend. As the girl reached her seat, she raised her head, revealing large purple welts on one cheek in the unmistakable shape of a hand. It was clearly a recent wound, and the skin around it radiated red streaks. A look of horror passed over her friend’s face — but quickly, like the shadow of a fast-moving cloud. Their eyes met. The bruised girl spoke first: “My mother turned around real fast this morning and accidentally slapped me,” she said, then looked down once again, perhaps in shame, or so that her eyes would not betray her lie.
With only a slight pause, the other girl said, “Once, my mother was carrying a basket of clothes and almost knocked me down the stairs. It scared both of us to death!”
The bruised girl smiled in relief, then sat down, and the two of them began to chatter in animated voices about what they had in their lunch sacks, about their homework, about normal things.
When my father developed a terminal illness and could no longer work, my parents quickly became very poor. Upon arriving home for Christmas that year, I could tell by the look on my father’s face that something was bothering him — something besides his health. When he finally told me what it was, he didn’t even look at me, but kept his eyes focused on something in the distance: someone had put my parents’ names in for a Christmas dinner from the Salvation Army.
My father had to go to the church to pick the dinner up. “Do you want to come?” he asked nonchalantly, as if it really didn’t matter one way or the other.
“Sure,” I answered just as casually.
We drove in silence. It seemed to take my father forever to pull into a spot in the nearly empty lot. When we got out, he leaned against the car, breathing hard. He was staring at the church building. I almost asked, “Are you sick?” but something stopped me.
“You have to give me a minute,” he said.
“No problem,” I said.
“I know that somebody meant well,” he said finally, “and we do need it, but this is really hard.”
We stood a little while longer, until my father was ready. Then we walked together toward the building where only the most needy enter.
After six months in Paris on a study-abroad program, I gathered what little money I had left and hopped a train to Italy, telling my parents I was traveling with another student, though I was actually alone.
Sitting on my backpack at the port of Brindisi, waiting for the ship to Greece, I suddenly felt lonely and frightened. No one who cared about me knew where I was, and none of the other travelers knew me at all. When I boarded the ship, I discovered my Eurail-pass allowed me passage, but no berth. I would have to spend the twenty-four-hour trip on deck. I was completely unprepared, having no sleeping bag, and not even a sweater or jeans.
As darkness settled in, I crouched in a corner, preparing to shiver through the surprisingly cold night. Two young German men noticed my situation and asked if I’d like to share their sleeping bags. Hesitantly, I agreed. We zipped the two bags together, climbed in, and soon fell asleep.
The next day, they shared their food with me and taught me their favorite card game. When we got to Athens, we checked in at the youth hostel and then explored the city together. For three days they invited me along wherever they went, paid for all my meals, and watched over me like protective brothers. Other than a chance to practice their English, they asked for nothing in return.
If I were on that ship today, I doubt I would accept the offer to share sleeping bags with two unknown men. And yet if we lock ourselves up so tight that we can never welcome the kindness of a stranger, when will we ever experience the wonder of being given such a gift?
Oak Park, Illinois