[Today I’m revisiting an article published around this same time last year.]
Going back to the start of 2021, I have been volunteering my time on Thursdays at a local food pantry that serves our community. I am off today, however, because we are closed on Thanksgiving, which seems more than a bit ironic given our mission to feed people in need.
[I still volunteer my services at the pantry. The place once again was closed on Thanksgiving, which I still find to be ironic. However, I get it that Thanksgiving is a holiday when people gather with family and friends, and suppose many of our regular clients prefer doing likewise.
As for me, with Lee gone, and my folks gone, and my sister seemingly on her last legs, Thanksgiving certainly feels different today than in past years. A lifetime’s worth of comforting smells, images of my mother bent over an open oven to peek on the bird’s progress, the sounds of guests, friends, and love ones all trying to be heard at once, their voices creating convivial harmonies, the clattering of rarely seen or used fine China and ornate silver flatware, a televised football game droning in the background, stay alive in my memory.
I am thankful for Robyn’s invitation to break bread with her and her family. Dinner was delicious, of course, and I scored leftovers, too! The experience of witnessing her young adults scatter as quickly as possible to visit with their own friends was reminiscent of my youth, and oddly comforting. A new holiday tradition in the making?]
Ordinarily, twenty minutes or more before opening, men and women, some with small children in tow, are lined-up down the street near where the church that operates the “Good Hope” pantry is located. They are supposed to get processed single file, one at a time, but if the weather is bad or the temperature extremely cold, as it has been lately, we manage to squeeze as many as will fit into the small room filled with a couple folding tables and maybe a dozen folding chairs. Many days it is standing room only. Late arrivals must wait outside. Every week a few aggressive types try to sneak in or to bull their way inside without registering through the entrance reserved for employees and volunteers. Such people are invariably barred trespass.
The pantry itself is a spartan affair. Removable shelves line three of the four walls. We line up the few shopping carts we have managed to acquire along the front window that looks onto the street, adjacent to the employee/volunteer entrance. Every now and then someone tries to make off with a valuable grocery cart, but because these are so few, we hoard them like gold.
We get our food from a central food depository that serves pantries around the city. You never know what we will have on hand to stock our shelves: packaged staples, canned goods, a sampling of fresh fruits and vegetables, cheese and milk, pork, beef, poultry, and bread products. Some name brand items among many more lesser brands, along with completely unfamiliar brands, and items without any labels at all. Occasionally we get unexpected premium specials— diapers, coffee, cooking oil, almonds, even pistachios. These premium items go fast.
[As the economy has dipped, our food donations markedly have declined. It seems those who are most vulnerable always get hit the hardest. For the first time since I began volunteering my services, we frequently have empty, or at least partially empty, shelves, prompting occasional loud complaints from a tiny segment of our clientele.]
It seems there exists a kind of pantry circuit. Our regulars all know the best places to go depending on the day of the week, even the time of day. For example, we are a “go to” place for many on Thursday mornings. Consequently, many of our regulars know one another from riding the food pantry circuit. I will hear them exchange greetings in Spanish, Polish and English. Over time I have picked up a smattering of Spanish and like to ask our Latinx clients in their native language about specific foods. However, due to my own limitations, our conversations are limited to the present tense.
The client rules are simple enough. Wear a mask, don’t reach for or touch food items, maintain safe distances. Nonetheless, I constantly must remind people to keep the mask up over the nose as well as over the mouth. Last week, one belligerent client became so agitated when a volunteer reminded him to put on a mask while inside the pantry, I became concerned the situation might escalate into physical violence. As it was, three of us took a quarter of an hour getting him calm before he left the pantry in a huff without food. I am quite sure he will be back next Thursday. And, despite item limits based on how much of a particular item we happen to have on hand at that moment, there are some pushy individuals who always loudly demand more than their fair share, and sly manipulators who plead for extra helpings under their breath and “on the q.t.” I guess regardless of personal circumstances, people are people.
While we are closed today, I raise a glass to a few of my favorites. So, cheers to “Luz,” the tiny Latina, who never takes more than she needs, even if we have an excess of an item that she likes. Luz will say, “Thank you, but I have what I require. Save it for somebody else, please.”
Another toast to Irwin, a tall, good looking fellow sporting a bushy beard and long hair, who appears to be in his forties. I can easily imagine that Irwin lived in a commune at some point in his life, perhaps still does. He seems knowledgeable about and concerned with the nutritional value of the foods he eats, but natural or organic pantry selections are basically nonexistent. I know Irwin is partial to unsalted nuts if these are available when he visits. I do not know whether Irwin is unemployed, but if he is, it is a personal choice.
Finally, salute to Bobby, whom, sadly I have not seen since last winter. During a blizzard one Thursday last winter, Bobby left our pantry with 4 bags of food. He strung these bags onto a long pole he had left standing upright against our building, carefully placed the pole onto his shoulders behind his head, mounted his bicycle, then pushed off, and slowly departed on a journey nearly one mile back home. As I watched Bobby wobble off and disappear into the whiteout, I kept asking myself how he ever would manage if he had to brake the bike to a complete stop. I could only marvel at the human spirit.
[Sadly, Luz and Irwin have vanished, and Bobby never returned after disappearing into the blowing snow. I hope they are okay.
At the same time, the total number of pantry patrons seemingly has increased in inverse proportion to the declining state of the economy.]
My experience at “Good Hope” is not satisfying on a personal level; often it is more like a chore. I don’t derive any “feel good” from it. And I am about as cynical today as I ever have been.
In these posts I have mentioned more than once that my sweet wife Lee was unfailingly kind. Family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, complete strangers, it did not matter to Lee. She probably was the kindest person I have known. And though we had much in common, we were not much alike in this one important way.
[I just guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.]
Keeping our loved ones alive in our hearts and in our minds comes with the widower territory: grief’s sudden and unexpected sting; a spontaneous quiet smile, even audible laughter that occasionally bubbles up from a happy memory of a life together; holding close those solemn or special days or occasions when he or she is still the center your attentions. These experiences and feelings are unavoidable, they are sentiments most of us share. I have no insights to impart.
I would only tell you that in my case, I volunteer at the Good Hope pantry on Thursday mornings to honor Lee precisely because this is an activity I otherwise probably would not engage in on my own. There could be other choices. Accomplish something that you know your deceased love would have approved of in life, stretch your own perceived limitations, grow your wealth of prior experiences, do the unexpected, do something that is completely out of character for you, but perfectly consistent with the best qualities you remember about a husband, a wife, even a child.
Honor the dear departed. What more fitting way could there possibly be for us, their living survivors, to maintain them?
[To which I say, amen, brother!]