Born into the Great Depression, Herb’s first years testify to the tension between need and charity. Farm families in Kansas suffered. Drought desiccated crops. Herb never went hungry but recalls repeated meals of steamed wheat and lard gravy. Surely his mother awoke each day aware of scarcity and hunger.
The family farm sat along US 50 and across from the Cottonwood River and the Atchison,Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway. In the thirties itinerant men rode the railways, some seeking work, some escaping arrest, all of them hungry.
Strangers would walk up the lane to the Simmons’ back door and offer to work for food. Since there was little to offer in work, Anna Simmons would dip into the family’s meal pot and hand a bowl of beans or stew or steamed wheat through the door to a grateful, hungry man.
In chapter 20 of Steinbeck’s novel Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family sets up in Hooverville in Southern California. Ma Joad feeds her family inside their tent away from the hungry stares of starving children drawn to the family’s campsite by the smell of cooked beans. Imagine her dilemma of conscience, the tension between personal and community responsibility, the feeding of her own people and the sharing with others. She cannot bear not sharing. After ladling out food to her family of six, she tells the gathering crowd of hungry children to go get some bowls. Her act of charity is sacrificial, stark, and poignant.
I don’t know about you, but if my children were hungry and the larder low, I’d think twice before handing out food to a ragged but polite stranger at my back door or shorting my family to feed the children of others. But what could I say? “I’m sorry” wouldn’t ring true. I’d be lying; dishonesty with a lack of charity would only compound my dilemma. “I’m out of food; we are starving too” wouldn’t exactly be honest either. Could I bring myself to say, “I’m so afraid my children will starve, I’m willing to risk your starvation for their sakes.”?
Afraid! Afraid to love, afraid to trust, afraid of giving, afraid of loss. Fear is the great isolator of people, an infection in the soul, the poison to charity, the muddy sludge in our communities.
We don’t have to have food shortages to experience guarded behaviors and a lack of charity. Conservative social behavior can be uncharitable.
New neighbors move in next door while we check out their Acura MDX, Honda Accord, two children, and a fluffy dog. Work men awaken us at 7am with their hammering. “Mexican” painters go in and out of the driveway. The new neighbors are strangers with unknown histories.
We are busy. We have azaleas to move, an antique car to repair, furniture to deliver to a son. We have a business. We have social obligations. We’ve been entertaining out of town guests for two weeks and will be leaving for the Cape next week.
Still we go next door and introduce ourselves. The new neighbors have names. They are friendly, and they look haggard. The painters are behind schedule. The moving van will arrive in two days. The family has been going back and forth between hotel and house. The only place to sit is on the floor or hearth.
We could walk away; we’d done our part — the introductions. “Let us know if we can help” is not a commitment, not a sincere offer. Too vague.
Then we say,”Would you like to borrow our vacuum?” Our new neighbor smiles and gushes with gratitude, which fuels our imagination. We have a playhouse once enjoyed by our now grown children. We say, “Your children will love our playhouse out back.” And more: “Your parents must stay in our guest suite when they come.” And finally, inspired by the possibilities we say, “You will be so tired the night before moving day, please have supper with us. We want so much to visit with you….Help yourself to any pots and pans you might need….Here are some paper plates and cups. Take these strawberries with you…”
We tell our maid to prepare the guest suite. We buy Stouffer’s frozen lasagne and salad in a bag. We pop popcorn, set out Brie and crackers, and pull cookies from the freezer. We select a nice wine from the cellar. We allow the fluffy white dog in the guest suite. We give our new neighbors a key to our home.
Because we could not honestly turn away. We could not say, “We are too busy to care.” It just isn’t who we want to be.
But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 1 John 3:17-18
Note: This post was inspired by two situations: family poverty during the thirties and the generosity of neighbors when a daughter and son-in-law moved to Atlanta. Although I exercise creative license with some details, the events are essentially true, especially the kind generosity of next door neighbors in Atlanta. The story of Anna Simmons’ generosity during The Great Depression is part of family lore and matches all that I knew about her.