The night before Thanksgiving, my nieces Claire and Rebekah spent the night with us here in town. Claire woke up early on Thanksgiving morning and walked over to the Methodist church, her family’s church, to volunteer assembling and delivering Thanksgiving meals for the poor and the needy of the parish. She came back late in the morning, in time for us all to go out to my mom and dad’s place for our own family dinner.
Doing this kind of work made a big impression on Claire, who is 13. She told us that people were so grateful. One woman they served today takes care of her mom, who has advanced cancer — which, you’ll remember, took the life of Claire’s mother in 2011. Claire said when she and the other church workers showed up with food, the woman started crying, and told them they weren’t going to have Thanksgiving this year, because her very sick mother usually made it, but could not. Now, thanks to the people of the church, they would have something good to eat on Thanksgiving.
Later in the day, sitting on the back porch with my mother and father, I told them how much serving the needy right here in our own community had meant to Claire. My folks told a story about something they had done many years ago, when my dad was still working at his first job. At his office, he heard of a particular family around the parish that was desperately poor — so poor it was thought their three children would have nothing for Christmas. The mother in that family was very sick too. If I’m remembering the story correctly, that family wasn’t from around here, so they had no one to lean on.
That really got to him, and when he told my mother about it, they decided to do something special for this family. Back in those days, my folks didn’t have much extra, but they couldn’t stand the thought of these people having nothing for Christmas. So they went out and bought toys and gifts for all three kids, and bags and bags of groceries for the family.
“We bought butter and rice and all kinds of things to fill up their pantry,” my mom said. “And when your Daddy and I went out to those people’s place on Christmas Eve, those kids couldn’t believe what they were seeing. We took all the gifts and the food into their house. They were so humble and grateful. We opened the fridge to put the cold things in for them, and all they had in it was a bottle of water.”
“A bottle of water?” I said.
“A bottle of water,” my mom said. “Then we opened up their cabinets to put the other food away, and the only food they had in the whole house, on Christmas Eve, was a box of saltine crackers.”
My mom said that word got back to her and my dad that those children said this was their best Christmas ever.
“Two months later, their mama was dead,” said my mother.
I noticed that she was crying. I looked over at my dad, who was sitting in the porch swing with his head bowed, fighting back tears.
“Isn’t that something?” Mama said. “That was over 30 years ago, and I still can’t think about that family without getting emotional.”
I was just reading a bedtime story to Lucas and Nora, my two younger kids, and it so happened that the story collection I pulled off their shelf had a short essay about Mother Teresa. We read about her, and afterward we talked about what Claire had done for poor people in our town earlier today, and what Mam and Paw had done for some very poor people around here a long time ago. As I sat there listening to myself tell my children about the goodness of Mother Teresa, and their own grandparents, and even their cousin, I thought about how hard my own heart is, and how that really needs to change.