Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Do You Recognize the Song?

April 7, 2009

What? Two posts in one week?
(Yes, I am also a mindreader.)

Today at the food bank I remembered why coming here feeds me.

Lately I've come home weighed down by the stories, infected with discouragement, and oppressed even by the smells of hard-luck living. I sit sometimes with my felllow volunteers while we're waiting for our "customers," chatting, listening to their struggles with government agencies, stints in the state hospital, repairing motorcycles, trying to find work, horrific car accidents, medical marijuana, failing drug tests, going to the zoo every Tuesday, firefighting, cars they've loved, traveling by boat down the coast from Alaska, living on a boat, living in the woods, camping, fishing, sharing recipes, stories about families, memories of their mothers, our mothers, our childhoods, the people we love. And everything I've read and every college degree I've won fall away from me as the nothing they really are.

This is a freeing realization. But a frightening one.

Anything that has happened to them, could happen to me, and would I know how to respond as well as they have? Because we are hardly different from one another, any of us, though we walk around thinking what we have and what we've done is what we are, thinking we are more than frightened children dangling our legs over the bank with bravado and tossing small rocks into the dark water.

Today a woman came in, the powder blue of her sleeveless sweater pefectly setting off the dark-blue undertones in her skin. Her voice is loud and sure, sweet as molasses, her wide-set brown eyes very beautiful - beauty is confidence and confidence beauty for her, "Bleach! Bless you!," she lifts a jug from the free shelf. "Can I really have this? Really! You are all working for Jesus - you know that don't you? You are working for Jesus. I can see your haloes!"

If so, we are the saddest, seediest group of angels you'll ever see. And she is a bit of an operator, asking me if she can take some of the polished glass pebbles that support the pens to decorate her fishbowl. I shrug, "Sure." Because really, why not?

While we're filling her order, another woman comes in, long shiny brown hair and tall - the age of my sister, with the same name as my sister - her very movements likable and competent. When I come back with her order, her voice is excited, "I was reading this," she points to the poster on the wall Share your Harvest - Plant a Row. "Can I do this? We're planting a big garden this year. I know we'll have extras. Can I bring in whatever?"

"Yes! Of course. That's where all this in the free area comes from," gesturing to the beautiful, beautiful potatoes that everyone has been cooing over and filling up their bags with.

She beams, reaching for her monthly box of cereals and canned soup, "We wouldn't be here without you guys. You have no idea," she nods, swallows, turns away, then grins back over her shoulder, "Pay it forward, right? It's all you can do."

Later a man comes in, sandyhaired, with Renaissance whiskers and flyaway mustachios. He shows me his i.d. - I attempt a pronunciation - almost correct.

"Dutch?" I ask, looking up his paperwork in the files.

"Yep," this pleases him. "In fact there are only two of us in the whole U.S. - my cousin back east. But I looked in a phone book in Amsterdam once and there were over a hundred with [same first and last name as himself]. And my cousin has tracked down our family on the Internet and found the name going back to the 1700s!"

"Great-great grandpa, huh?" I hand him the pen to sign for this month's box.

He purses his lips, "She," he says with appreciation, "had five children without ever being married and was apparently a rich rich lady, millions when she died . . . from her side job - not that that's the sort of thing that anyone ever really wants to know!" He appears torn between half-proud shame and bashful admiration at his successfully enterprising foremother - who, however she earned a living, saw to it that her children lived and reproduced on beyond her.

An hour before it's time to go. One of the other volunteers - a sweet-tempered guy the age of my younger brother - announces that when he gets home he's going to make his brother "a birthday cake. Because today it is his birthday!"

What kind of cake? "German chocolate!"

"Oo, you'll be the favorite brother."

"I better be. I'm his only brother." And he tells us how amazing his brother is, who still works even with a degenerating disease that affects his motor skills. It's the same thing their father had before he died, he tells us with his own half-controlled wavings of the arms and constant fidget that I had til now assumed was from one too many -

All four of us restock the shelves for tomorrow's crew. The birthday-brother volunteer tells us how he used to live across the street from Free Willy. "Right across the street," his arms wave, his head twitches. "And then they moved him to Antarctica and you know that Free Willy he goes out and visits with the other whales that come but then goes back to his cave. He hasn't joined any pod. But if his family came, if his mother came, then he'd join their pod."

"How would he know?" I wonder. "Would he recognize their smell?"

Everyone jumps in. They all know, "Oh, he'd know them. He would know. Probably by their song. Definitely, he'd recognize their song."

In the last half hour an older woman comes in. "A blessing," she pronounces, "More than you can know. A blessing." Her voice has a soft, south-of-the-border lilt. She grasps the pen with especially graceful fingers, long nails with silvery hot pink polish and many fine silver & turquoise rings. She mentions in passing that she lives in her van.

"Would you like a can opener?"

"Yes! Oh, yes. We've been hacking the top off, like with a knife - " her graceful hands show me the action.

She is clean, but we offer always (whenever donations allow) to those with no address - "Grooming supplies? Soap? Dishwashing soap?"

"Yes. Yes. Oh, yes. Something to wash my clothes," her eyes fill.

When we bring her the box, she tries to call her daughter - asking for "Space Two" when someone comes on the line - to see if the friend who borrowed her van today to get to a job interview is back yet.

He's not, so she's going to walk back, "It's not far." We repack her box into doubled-up grocery bags. "How far are you going again?" It's almost closing time and the birthday-cake-making volunteer offers to carry the box home for her.

"I was going to do this on my own," she says, a little quaver in her voice. "I told myself this morning I could do this on my own and I was going to do it on my own." She casts a conspiratorial glance my way, "But we're never on our own, are we? He never leaves us all alone."

She turns at the door, her hand on the doorknob, "God bless. Bless you all. More than you can know."

The three of us left count up our business for the day, turn the sign to Closed, but wait at the door until our fourth comes back.

"That was a good thing to do," we tell him.

He just grins, as we lock up and turn out the light. He's in a hurry to get home.

He's got a cake to bake.


Lisa B. said...

This brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

Good Grief MJ. What an interesting place to be.....inside your head.

Please, write you book. Do it.


-The Breadmaking Fool.

Mrs. Organic said...

As long as I've known you, you've always given back. I love that about you.

Anonymous said...

I teared up. What a sweet sincere story and what beautiful imagery. It felt real to read your experience.

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