It is tradition on this blog to re-post this story every Thanksgiving. A lot has changed in the years that followed, but it still stands as one of the clearer defining moments of my life. I am thankful for so many things this year (look in my sidebar for a little tiny hint!) including the love of family and friends. I hope you and your family have a safe and wonderful holiday. ~ Mimi
When my son was fifteen he did something stupid. His dad, my ex-husband, gave him the usual “Atta boy don't do that again” talk, the school got their three days without his smart mouth and I was left with the what am I gonna do with this child? nightmare invading my dreams. In those days there was no imaginary blog dungeon, no chains, no rack – not that I would have used it ( I didn't even believe in spanking) – but you catch my drift.
What am I going to do with this child?
The conversation went something like this: “You know I love you so I'm not even going to preface this punishment with I love you because you've already gotten a slap on the wrist but OK OK I love you.”
“Yeah, I know Mom.”
He started to walk away.
“Well, I hope you'll still love me when I tell you what your punishment is going to be.”
Although I vowed never to give the think of all the starving children speech to my child (I broke that rule many times), this time I went for the jugular. Mine was bulging. “What were you THINKING?! Do you think you can just go through life handling things this way? Do you know how privileged you are? (yeah Mom) Do you understand that there are kids in this world who would love to have your life? (yeah Mom) Why are you choosing to mess things up for yourself? Do you know that you can't play sports now? (yeah Mom) Are you listening to me?! If you don't get your act together young man you're going to end up somewhere you don't want to be and I'm not bailing you out. Do you hear me? (yeah Mom) You have no idea how close you came to getting in serious trouble today, do you? Do you? Well, DO you?? (a surly yeah Mom....See, I told you, listen to the smart mouth.) What you do right now in school will determine your future. And now you have a bad mark on your academic record and a three-day suspension before high school. You are out of control!”
“So ground me,” said the smart mouth.
“No. I will not ground you.”
The smart-aleck ceased for a moment and then....."Whatever, Mom.”
I was furious with him and at my wit's end. He needed to see how the real world works. I made arrangements. It took some doing but they finally saw it my way. "You want your son to do WHAT? But he's not a criminal (not YET I thought) and we're not a juvenile detention center." (well......) "Will you please allow us to do this? I asked the nun-like administrator of this facility. “I'm not trying to teach him a lesson here, that is not the point, but he needs to see and understand with his own eyes how lucky he is and how his actions now can affect the rest of his life.”
So for the next two months that summer we got up at five am, drove to another town and worked in a homeless shelter's soup kitchen. It was the worst of the worst neighborhoods. I had cleanup detail (you didn't think they'd let me near the food now, did you?) and he served the line.
“What are we doing here?” he asked.
I never told him why. He didn't need another lecture.
Think of all the starving children just got real.
After one week of losing his summer sleep to ride an hour in my car at the crack of dawn - with music blasting all the way - and mingle with very old people volunteers and stir canned creamed corn in a pot for an hour he said, “Why didn't you just send me to REAL jail?! I hate this!”
Uh huh, I thought. Just stir, buster.
In the middle of the second week he started to actually get up before I did. “Hurry up, Mom. We have to get going.” (Oh great, I thought. He's met a pretty girl at the homeless shelter. That's the only reason he would get up at five am. My plan has backfired. Drats!) And what was this grand revelation I expected him to learn? Heck if I knew. I was just a parent with an unruly fifteen- year -old with no respect for himself or his elders or his life. I didn't even know if it would make a difference.
All I knew was that somehow the corn and pintos and no-dessert-for-you rule would magically translate into a light-bulb moment for him. Osmosis maybe? I just knew this was the right thing to do but I didn't know how or why.
One early afternoon as I started to clean the lunch tables with a large wet rag and a bucket of soapy water, rearranging the napkins and utensils for the next meal, I looked up to see my sleepy-headed son talking with a man through the narrow serving window.
My boy had just served lunch. There was pie for dessert that day.
Pumpkin pie.The man had returned to the window for another slice.
He was dirty. Shaky.
No teeth. Scraggly. Scary. Smelly. And hungry.
The rules were clear. One serving per person. No seconds. Period.
No one was looking. And I'm thinking....We're going to get thrown out of the soup kitchen for not following the rules. Oh great! Suspended again. And this time I'm going down with him. Oh the shame. Until.....
The man who wanted more pie.
Up until this point he rarely made eye contact with anyone in the line. Especially not the kids. He plopped the food on the plate and reached for the next empty Styrofoam sadness shuffling through. People with their entire families in tow. Hungry folks down on their luck and needing not even a hot meal. Just a meal. Families living in cars through no fault of their own. On the street. Raggedy clothes crossing elbows with his Tommy Hilfiger jeans and watch.
Pork 'n beans, wax beans, any beans. Didn't matter. Please feed my child. My little girl is hungry. I saw it in their eyes. The sadness. And the shame.
I was so moved that summer. Apparently, I needed a reality check too. But that was not the point. Was it?
The man would not stop asking and he was forced to look him squarely in the eyes. I could see the wheels turning in baby boy's brown-eyed head..... “Will you shut up? I'm going to get in trouble if you don't go away.”
And a hungry stare full of embarrassment that a life-giving gesture lay in the hands of this kid he did not know and would never know - someone young enough to be his grandchild - who held something he wanted.. something he had to beg for. And then I saw my son slip a plump piece of pumpkin delight (with whipped cream) onto the scraped clean empty plate. The man nodded appreciatively, lowered his head, and walked away.
By this time my wet rag had dropped to the table and the cleaning had stopped. My hair in a net, pretending to fold silverware sets, I watched what happened. He saw me sit down. I waited for someone to say something. I waited for him to get in trouble. No one saw his discretion that day but I'll tell you this - If I could have jumped through the tiny little window and wrapped my arms around that boy I would have done so.
He was shuffling his hundred dollar Nike-shod feet standing with a spatula and an empty pan, trying not to look at me. When our eyes finally met, the blur of tears between us said what no lecture ever could. We never talked again about the man, the pie, or his punishment.
But I was proud.
We finished our tour of shelter duty as promised and school started again in the fall.
That was seventeen years ago.
Did that summer stop him from forever being a knuckle-head? No.
Did he straighten-up-and-fly-right from that moment on? No.
Were there more nightmare dreams for me through the teenage years? Yes.
But I have to believe that it shaped his understanding of the world a bit and through all his troubles that most certainly came later, I did see – and continue to see – a great compassion develop in him for people in need.
And to this day, every time I'm offered a slice of pumpkin pie.... I see a homeless man, a prized piece of dessert and brown-eyed humility.