I was four years old, and crayons were one of the best parts of living. The smell of a fresh pack, especially if they were the expensive name brand colors, is stored in the part of my brain that responds to sea air, beeswax candles, joyful choirs, and puppies. When Grandmawmaw walked me over to the crayon aisle in Kmart, my palms started sweating in anticipation. She was looking at the name brand crayons. Only the eight packs, but still. She chose two packs of crayons.
Curiosity got the better of me. “Who are those for, Grandmawmaw?” I figured it was a foregone conclusion. I mean, I was standing right there, and it was well known that at least three of my crayons were broken.
“They are for some little boys who don’t have any toys.”
“Oh.” I admit, my empathy was not stirred. My greed, however, was. “They could have my old crayons.”
“They don’t have any new things, so we are going to give them some new crayons and coloring books. Help me pick out some coloring books. Which ones are best?”
I picked through them and found a Thundercats and a Bugs Bunny coloring book. Grandmawmaw guided me back to the checkout and paid. I didn’t dwell on the disappointment. The fact was, I had colors and books already. I also didn’t look forward especially much to seeing the toys leave Grandma’s house, which I assumed would take place anonymously. Grams would leave with the toys and come back without them.
When we got back to Grandmawmaw’s house, she turned to me and explained. She was not giving the boys the toys; I was.
“Why do I have to give them colors? I don’t know them.”
She explained the situation: a granny had to take in her grandsons who had nothing with them, she was proud but very poor and having to ask assistance from the state, a gift from one child to another would make them feel better, and the granny wouldn’t accept it if she thought it made her owe someone. I didn’t really get what she was saying, but I held her hand and walked the Kmart bag of colors and books down the sidewalk, around the corner, and knocked on the door Grandmawmaw indicated. She stood back a bit.
The door opened on a middle aged, haggard woman with faded bottle blond hair. She was dressed in shorts and the sort of banded bottomed shirts grannies wore at the time. Behind her legs, two stricken, small faces looked out at me sadly. One of them had on a shirt and underpants, the other just a pair of jeans. I could tell they were probably from the only pair of clothes they owned. That doorstep was where I grew empathy. The bright, naked boys in the foreground of a dark, destitute apartment showed me the meaning of need. We stared at one another, kid to kid, and I lost my voice for a moment.
“Summer has something she wants to say to the boys,” Grandmawmaw explained to the other grandma, who eyed us with equal parts suspicion and despair. I knew my cue.
“I just thought you might like some colors and coloring books,” I said to the boys. I looked at the one my age, in the underpants. His eyebrows raised. The topless boy, maybe a year older, smiled a bit. “It’s not much, but they’re the good kind.” I smiled back, shyly.
We said good-bye, and Grandmawmaw and I walked back to her apartment hand in hand.
That was my first experience of almsgiving, an ancient Christian practice of direct relief of poverty. Almsgiving is not tithing or financial pledges to organizations, though of course those types of giving are good, too. Almsgiving is meant to be from one hand to another, person to person, so you can look another kid in the eye and give him his dignity along with his crayons.
My other granny, Grandma Betty, also introduced me to a type of giving. I was playing at her house one day when I was six or so, and a young woman with a toddler on her hip knocked on the front door. Grandma Betty answered graciously and listened to the woman’s spiel. This time, I was the kid looking out from behind a granny. I watched the woman’s nervous body language, heard her twitchy voice. She said she needed money for milk for her baby.
Now, Grandma Betty is and always has been Baptist and kind at heart. She was not about to let a baby go without milk. I watched eagerly for how she would make it right for that baby.
“Alright. Let me get my purse. I’ll take you down to Seller’s Bros. and buy you a gallon of whole milk.”
“Oh, that’s okay. No need to go to the trouble. I can just take the money.”
“It’s no trouble at all. I have an account there. If you’d like, you can wait on the porch, and I’ll be right back.”
“Um, well, I also need some cigarettes.”
Grandma Betty has a particular genius at clearing her throat. For instance, she can hawk and clear her sinuses loud enough to be heard through walls and doors. When she scoffed, “H-uh!” at that girl, the young woman nearly jumped out of her skin with nerves.
“I am not buying you any cigarettes. I am glad to help you with milk for the baby. But you listen to me: it’s not right to try to use your baby to get stuff that’s bad for you, and that goes for alcohol and drugs, too.”
“Yes,’m. I’m sorry.” I didn’t hear the rest, as I was shooed from the doorway.
The woman refused the offer of milk after all, which troubled me for a long while. Grandma Betty said that the baby had milk at home, and that the girl was just trying to take advantage of kindness.
I filed the story away as my first example of giving as “charity,” from a more powerful to a less powerful person. I learned to be wary of people who came knocking on strangers’ doors, because they often lied. A year or so later, I saw Grandma Betty feed a hungry man right out on the porch, because it wasn’t safe to let a stranger in the house. She really was kind hearted, in case the story made you doubt. She just had the type of doors people knock on, and she had learned caution.
For a number of years, I ignored the sign holders on the side of the road as best I could. I would pray for them, but I rarely felt comfortable giving them money. Then my son got old enough to ask me, “Why are those people standing on the road with signs?”
I explained poverty and its indignities and needs, and I drove to the store. Crayons wouldn’t cut it, but food would go a little ways toward helping the men and women we passed so often. I decided on Poptarts, which have a nearly universal appeal and come cheap. For weeks, if we pulled up by a sign person, I would crack the window and ask, “Do you like Poptarts?” and hand over a box of the frosted strawberry variety if they said, “yes.” Most of them said, “Yes.”
Since then, we have tried a few other things: cans of honey roasted peanuts (which don’t work for the meth addicts with poor teeth), yogurt raisins, ziplocks filled with an assortment of protein-laden snacks plus a few hygiene items (individual wipes, tooth Wisps, chapstick). Poptarts still work the best.
Every time I pass a box or bag out the car window, my son speaks up afterward. “Mama, why did you give that man that food?”
“Because he is made in the image of God, and he is hungry.”