CHARITY_imperfect prose



It was hot.

It was the middle of a long, not so good, Summer for me.

And I was way out of my comfort zone.

A month prior I had heard about a program called “picnics in the park” hosted by our local Food Bank.

The concept was simple and perfect: every weekday the Food Bank van would make stops at about a half dozen of our cities local parks.  It would deliver a lunch sack and cold water to any one who wanted one.  Adult or child.  Poverty and hunger watchdogs have long voiced that during the Summer months at risk children will often go without regular meals due to no school, that is to say, no provided school meals.  Our local food bank wanted to help.

I wanted to help.

This pass Summer was a real premier Summer for our household in that I signed my four children up for Summer Cohesion. I was not in a good place last Summer, and well, kinda desperate.  So I swallowed my pride, and did the “Summer day care thing”.

On Fridays I would pick my four girls up, flaming red-cheeked, sweaty, and tired to then dash across town to a park in the bad part of town.  I will never forget my first experience of doing charity outreach that did not involve a church basement and carefully planned Bible lessons.  I of course, in true Leah-fashoin, was running late, parked in the wrong place, and swearing under my breath because of it, while telling my whining four daughters ages 4- 11 to “be quiet, I don’t care if you don’t wanna be here”.

We arrived like a flock of pale scattered birds.

I sent my four to go play at the playground, that in the 2 O’clock baking sun, had a metal slide too hot to slide down, and rubber swings that were also hot to the touch and smelled of burning tires.  They came slinking back like stray pups within two minutes.  At least I had those two minutes to introduce myself and get my instructions on how “picnics in the park” was gonna work.  A very simple set up.  They put me in charge of pouring water out of an over-sized orange and white Gatorade sports thermos into the smallest dixi paper cups I have ever seen.

Still feeling awkward.

Still eying my sweating, grumpy, children who stood there mute, gaping, and untidy three feet to my left. { I turned down the coordinator’s offer to let my girls help themselves to a free lunch sack}.

Without any signal people began to line up.  Silently.  Babies fussed in  strollers and on Mama hips.  Some children pushed and yelled playfully.  The adults were all silent though.  The volunteers were all silent.  I think at this point the project leader said a few things; that were more like shouted out instructions. There was mention that because of legality issues the lunches could NOT be carried home, but must be eaten on the premises.

And then we began to serve.

No one made eye contact.  The wilting heat, and crush of people, had slowed everyone’s movements and gait to a slow shuffle.  Except the kids and babies.  I tried to make eye contact with down-cast eyes that muttered whether they wanted a ham sandwich or a hot dog.  If they wanted their orange whole or quartered.  In a flash I had a sudden picture.  Now I read a lot of historic novels, so bear with me:

I just thought of those long, long food lines in Soviet Russia after Stalin took over.  The people would wait in long lines, in bitter cold often, seeing as it was Russia, waiting their government issued food ration.  It was supposed to be the glorious start to a new society that was to rid the nation of poverty and want.  I am sure many were hopeful, many grateful.  But there was no dignity in it.

Please understand me, I know next to nothing about Communist Russia. That image stemmed from a historic novel I had read that Summer title Russian Winter.  But as a writer, stories, and descriptions always stick, and resurface at the oddest times.

Nor am I attempting to make some sort of political social statement about how Soviet Communism is akin to American social welfare.

Not even close enough smart, or motivated for such nonsense.

However, right at that moment, in that sticky humidity and that sudden frigid mental image, I made a simple decision:

I was gonna smile and make small talk.

I told the Moms their kids were cute.

I said those hokey, predictable small talk lines, I am absolutely no good at, like:

“Can you believe how hot it is”

“I sure hope this weather breaks soon”

“Thank God for A/C, right?”

I called the kids “honey”.

I made sarcastic jokes with the men that ” I hope you can drink all the water in these huge cups we have!”

Say what you will about “people who are milking it off the system by us who work” and God knows there are a lot of those.

There is no pride in it.

I still believe at the end of the day, human beings want to be proud of themselves.

I knew nothing about these people, they knew nothing about me, except for one thing: They were the takers right now, and I was giving.

Recipient and Judge

Our parts were cast. We were people who lived in the same city, but planets apart is some ways,  who now are sharing the same space and exchanging a few words at a baking hot city park.

Eight months later I felt the sharp sting when those social table were suddenly turned.

It was about three weeks ago.

As uncomfortable hot as July was, so bitterly miserable our winter became.

School was cancelled more for windchill conditions than snowfall, time and time again in January and February.  Early March showed no improvement.

A biting wind found every inch not smothered in wool or stuffing as I waited at the bus stop for my five and seven year old daughters.  At last, the big yellow bus was spotted down the street.  I did mini hops to keep warm, standing in one spot, as I waited for the lights to flash, the stop sign to pop out, streaming traffic to halt, and kids to bound out when the mechanical door swung open.

I noticed right away.

My littlest, only in Pre-K, was not wearing her regular winter coat I send her out in every morning.  She tore down the steep bus steps and ran wild down the side walk, like she always does, in a shiny, brand new looking green puffy coat.  The iridescent , Columbia-brand, look-alike type.  I instantly assumed she must of spilled, ripped, or bled upon her own, and waited for “the story”. But she told me another, confusing tale instead.

“The nurse just gave it to me”

“What?  Why!”

She became mesmerized by something exciting like a brown leaf and dances away from me.  But I want answers.  Distancing myself from the other mothers who I don’t want hearing the rest of our conversation, I grab her arm, and get face to face so I she can hear me good and clear. I  ply her with more questions.

“Why did the school nurse give you this coat honey?  Did something happen to yours?”

She looks up confused, like,

“what is your problem Mom?” and replies,

“It’s my button.  It’s missing.  She just said: ‘Here honey looks like this is getting too small’  “.

Horror washes over me.  High school shame for not having the right outfit, was nothing compared to this.

Dear God in heaven we are the charity family!

That is all I could of think of.  Well, for the first 8 seconds.  Then came the usual anger, that I always replace with guilt with a magician’s slight- of- hand speed.

“Who do those school teachers think they are!”

“Don’t those morons know a good family, from the scummy families?”

“My kids get good grades…have manners…I pack them organic lunches every freaking day instead of the free government handout shit lunches most moms let their kids eat!”

“I do not need their charity!”

Yes.  These were the sentences yelling; some in my head, some out my mouth as I stomped the two blocks back to our respectable, neat, two-story, suburban house.

Above the loud, was the quiet hot presence of shame.

At home I ripped open her backpack and pulled out her very nice brown twill coat I got on clearance at TJMaxx the year before; stowing it in the attic for six months on purpose.  It was one of those old-fashioned looking pea coat.  Something that Samantha, the Victorian American Girl Doll, might don.   I hate those sporty, puffy, synthetic coats, that most kid department stores carry, almost exclusively.  It’s why I shop off-season clearance at TJMaxx.

Examining it closely, with the phantom critical eye of a school official peering over my shoulder, I noted with a sting that is was not missing one button, but two.  The beautiful twill, that keeps the weather out better than synthetic materials I am positive, was looking a little…shabby.  Covered in those stiff nubs like when the bathroom towels start to wear thin. I made my very confused daughter put the coat on.  With fresh eyes I noted how it does not go all the way down to her wrist anymore, like it did in late fall.

I felt like a bad mom.

Worse.  I felt like my kids were the charity kids.  Maybe not worse.  Maybe synonymous: bad mom/charity kids.

I cried at the dining room table over burritos, explaining it to my nodding husband, my bugged-eyed, silent kids.  There was even a neighbor kid having dinner with us, to spice things up.  My rational  and very private husband is willing and pleading me with his eyes to shut up, as I blab on and on about “judging society”  “government school programs” and “stupid stereotypes”

I had drank a little too much wine.

Later that evening, when the wine wore off,  I had calmed down, my husband, who works at a public school,  explained for the eighteenth time that the elementary teachers and staff did not think I was a “piece of crap Mom” but more than likely had an excess of coats and wanted to simply help. It was then that I remembered, with a gut jolt, the experience I had at “Picnics in the Park” this pass Summer.  How I felt sorry for those people lining up in the silent charity line, but did not necessarily want to feel sorry, just help, without belittling.

Yet when my pride was stung, I did exactly that.  Belittle and judge, all those “charity cases”.  I was sickened to be counted among them.  I feel more shame now, not for the missing button, shabby, too short in the arm coat, but for my spiteful words like “scummy families, charity cases, and moron teachers”.

So, the tables had turned as sharply as the seasons.

It didn’t feel good being on the receiving end.

Those same parts were cast.

Recipient.  Judge.

This Winter with the coat, same as that Summer with the lunches,  I did not know what to do, or feel.

I still don’t now.  I just know that Matthew 25 has been stalking me.

The parable of Jesus telling those He separates to the the left and those to the right based solely how we chose to act upon in love towards “the least” has nothing to do with abstract theology,  but practical action.

I can say now I am thankful for the “charity coat experience”.

I am glad I felt the sting of being judged, whether in reality, or in my mind. It wounds and lays you down low just the same.

I hope this little trifle of an experience, because that is all it really was {despite my dramatic display of crying and swearing} compared to how many, many others suffer from judgement  need, at the very least gave me empathy.

Empathy without compassion will always just be cold charity.


Linking up with the wonderful Emily Wierenga with her Imperfect Prose gang.

Come read and /or contribute your own story.



5 thoughts on “CHARITY_imperfect prose

  1. Hey Leah, I loved reading this and you made me laugh hard when you cried at dinner with a little too much wine. But I understand what you mean. It’s hard to receive charity. Humbling. And it does reveal how judgmental our hearts can be.


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