A week before Christmas, Diane helped purchase food for 30 Angel Tree families: 5 cases of precooked hams, 80 pounds of oranges, 60 pounds of sweet potatoes, 8 pounds of butter, 6 cases of canned vegetables and fruit. In Sam’s parking lot, a man offered, “May we help you? Those look heavy.” Indeed, each case of ham weighed 40 pounds.
On Saturday before Christmas, church youth will deliver gifts and meals to the Angel Tree families. The surface of this charitable event looks simple enough. Pluck a paper angel from a tree. Read the names. Shop. Wrap up the gifts and deliver them to the church office.
For a family to land on an Angel Tree, it must qualify as “needing help.” Imagine what needing help might mean: alcoholism, health disabilities, lay offs, divorce, abandonment. These very terms imply complexity and confusion or desperation, and more significantly, children at risk.
As a teacher Diane witnessed impoverished adolescents raising themselves. One young man fell behind in his studies because he was caring for little sisters, dressing them for school, feeding and bathing them, putting them to bed. He was sixteen; the girls, five and six. The mother was in and out, mostly out. Teachers sometimes drove the boy to the grocery store.
A recent article in The New York Times featured a New Jersey family on the edge of losing their home. A company had pink slipped the father when he reached the eighth year qualification for pension benefits. The mother worked for the IRS, which provided health insurance. The father worked any jobs he could find: pizza delivery, school janitor, Quick Stop clerk, part-time low wage jobs, two or three at a time. A car’s transmission went out. A child became ill. A local food pantry plugged the creeping gaps of hunger.
The face of need isn’t always easily recognized. The home may be in a nice neighborhood, the kids playing in the yard, the mom washing the car. The mom, a divorcee, pays the bills but has trimmed out vacations, air-conditioning, and roast beef. The ham in an unexpected care box of food will be the family’s holiday meal instead of a hamburger casserole.
Born in 1932, Herb knows how steamed wheat and lard gravy can quiet rumbling bellies. Today he will eat anything put in front of him. After Diane’s father graduated from high school in 1932, he worked on farms for shelter and food. At 21 years old, he weighed only 115 pounds.
The refrigerator might be low on food in our family households, but probably because Mom didn’t have time to go to Kroger. Our grandchildren might have soup for dinner tonight but baked salmon tomorrow. They thrive on scrambled eggs, hamburgers, grilled chicken, salad, pizza, smoothies, ice cream and cookies. For this we are grateful, but we also don’t forget how hunger robs the spirit of hope, how difficult it is to weigh more than 115 pounds when crops fail and chickens die, how delicious an orange from a church care box tastes on Christmas Eve after a week of steamed wheat and gravy, how comforting a stranger’s assistance was for Diane and her children one lonely, hungry night in Mono, California.
Love came down at Christmas. This isn’t a belief; it’s a life. Here, here is love, in a box of food for your family. Eat and know you are loved.
Postscript: Today after writing this holiday essay, Diane met friends at church to bag donated rice, which comes in 50 lb. bags. The women attempted to drag the heavy bags from a pantry closet, across a lobby floor, to the fellowship hall where they planned to measure and pour the rice into small bags. A disheveled man clad in soiled winter wear and resting in a lobby chair, looked up. “Let me do that for you.” He didn’t look like he had enough energy to stand, much less hoist a 50 lb. bag over his shoulder, but that’s exactly what he did, as if it were no heavier than a feather. His smile revealed missing and rotted teeth, his greasy hair needed washing, but he didn’t hesitate to do what he could do, lift heavy bags. This holiday essay seems quite appropriate in the light of that simple act.
December 18, 2014.