The supermarket was crowded when I rushed inside, intent on getting my shopping done as quickly as possible. I was hurrying down an aisle, when a wispy voice asked, “Excuse me, Miss. Can you tell me where the coffee is?”
I turned to see a small, white-haired woman in shabby clothing. She looked lost, frail, and helpless.
“Sorry, I don’t know.” I wasn’t a coffee drinker, after all. And as a brand-new high school teacher with several English classes, four levels of journalism classes, and newspaper production, TV dinners were just about all I was subsisting on. I hardly knew where to find anything else.
Critical thoughts swirled through my mind as I turned back to my shopping. Really, this woman has a serious memory problem if she can’t even remember where her coffee is! She shouldn’t be out by herself. How can her relatives let her go shopping alone? I’d certainly never let my parents do that.
"Could This Be Me?” My monologue went on awhile, but I had pretty much forgotten about the woman by the time I drove out of the parking lot. Then there she was again, walking along the sidewalk—a matchstick figure struggling with a heavy grocery bag. Any minute, she was going to fall on her face.
I just couldn’t help but pull over and offer her a ride. She directed me to an industrial section of the city, and then to a seedy old building that fronted directly on the sidewalk. There was not a tree or bush, let alone a flower, to be seen.
“Here we are,” she announced. “My apartment is on the third floor.”
It was just the opposite of the suburbs where I had always lived—among green lawns and flower beds, in houses full of light with all the amenities, and sometimes even swimming pools. How could anyone, especially this poor old woman, be living in such substandard quarters?
Following her up very dark and narrow stairs, I had a spasm of claustrophobia. Irrational anxiety hit me, too. I had been orphaned several years before, having lost my dad when I was eighteen and my mother and siblings when I was a toddler. Now, my teaching job had taken me two states away from all my other relatives.
By the time we reached the apartment door, I was really struggling with a fear I couldn’t put into words. Today I can see what it was: Could I end up old and alone like this?
Hidden Riches. Everything in me wanted to turn and run. But since I’d been taught manners, I couldn’t refuse the woman’s invitation to come inside. She sat me down on the sofa, opposite a little television with an eight by ten photo of a young woman on top of it.
“Your daughter?” I asked, grasping for something positive. And, at her affirmative reply, “I suppose you spend holidays with her.”
“No,” she said. “The gas heater in her apartment didn’t ventilate properly, and it killed her and another student nurse.” I felt my spirit flatten further.
“Do you have other children?” I ventured awkwardly. She had a son, she said. “But his wife doesn’t care for me. We don’t see each other.”
That did it! Now in total confusion, I jumped up and offered to put the woman’s groceries away. She shot me a surprised look, then waved me off saying, “Oh no, those aren’t for me. I bought them for my neighbor. He’s not well, poor man.”
Not for her. . . . My critical thoughts came crashing in on me, and I felt shamefaced and sheepish. This woman wasn’t addled! If she hadn’t known where to find the coffee, it was because she didn’t drink it. She had bought it for her neighbor—and for his sake, too, she had willingly faced an arduous walk home. This fragile woman whom I was seeing as the epitome of need was actually one of the rich people who is able to give to others despite her own pain.
How to Handle Hardship. I never saw the woman again—stretched to the maximum with my teaching load, I had no time to try to retrace the complicated route to where she lived. And, as I now suspect, perhaps I was unable to face my hidden fears. Yet this woman has stayed with me.
When I married and began a family, I tried to pass on to my own children a similar sensitivity to people’s needs. Building on memories of her—and of my father’s heart for the poor and my mother’s proverbially generous family—I looked for ways to reach out and help others as a family. We made many visits to a nun, Mother Catherine of Jesus Rodriguez, who worked with the poor in Tijuana. In our own country, we adopted an inner-city family with four children the ages of mine, whose mother had cancer.
Walking into that family’s home, where people were sleeping on the floor because they couldn’t afford beds, opened our children’s eyes to the needs of the poor. But in that same home, my children also saw the riches that money can’t buy. The family had gifts of love and laughter, and they shared them freely. It was another demonstration to me that everyone—no matter how impoverished—has something to give.
And so, that elderly woman was onto something. Lonely, deprived, and abandoned as she was, she had discovered that the best way to deal with hardship is to be of service to someone. Using her as my role model, I have tried to do the same. Do I feel lonely? Maybe there’s someone who could use a visit or some practical help. Am I homebound? I can always pick up the phone or send a friendly letter or e-mail.
Even without money, even without health, even if you’re giving “the widow’s mite” from your scarcity and not your abundance, even if you have prayer alone to give, it’s a blessing to know there’s always something you can do for someone else. n
Patricia Treece lives in Oregon and has authored numerous books, most recently, Meet John XXIII: Joyful Pope and Father to All (Servant Books).