Sometimes I wonder why charity has become a four-letter word.
This isn’t anything new. My mother-in-law and her brother used to tell a story about their widowed mother, who was pretty much an invalid because of her heart condition and had six children still living at home. A neighbor came home from a day on the river and offered freshly caught fish. Some would have taken that as a mighty friendly gesture in the middle of the Great Depression.
“We don’t take charity,” they related what she pronounced with her head held high.
“I don’t know,” my mother-in-law’s brother said, 70 years after the fact, “I still think that fish would have tasted mighty good.”
They probably had beans, onions and cornbread instead, but at least it was theirs and not a handout from the neighbor.
Then there’s the Baptist preacher back in the 1960s who read the Love Chapter from Second Corinthians. The chapter speaks of all the good things you can do but if you don’t have love it’s like tinkling brass. The King James Version uses the word charity, but the preacher always read it as love, as though charity were a bad word.
Even today, we treat charity like it was a loathsome rash. We don’t want to give poor people charity. We definitely never want to get charity. You have to take big nasty pills for ten days to get rid of it.
Down deep inside we’re afraid people who need charity aren’t deserving of it. Or too much charity will cripple a person for life, ridding them of the character-building urge to work. Like too many drugs are bad for you. It does you good to suffer. Of course, when we help people build character by not giving charity we also help ourselves by not giving up any of our money and time. And anyone who regularly doles out charity has the secret agenda of setting himself up as the superior being bending down to help the inferior being.
This is where the person on the receiving end, like my mother-in-law’s mother, feels insulted when some one wants to impose the inferior position upon them. I’m sure she was willing to be charitable to those she felt were beneath her, but her kids went without a tasty fish dinner one night before she’d let herself feel inferior.
Charity’s bad name comes about because of another characteristic from the Bible, pride, which has gone from one of the most prominent sins to being a virtue. Nowadays everybody’s pushing pride as something good—pride in our country, pride in our high school football team and pride in our children. We want our children to be proud and loud.
We have forgotten about humility and meekness. The meek shall inherit the earth. After the people with pride have ravaged the earth for its riches only the meek would take it. I like being humble. If you acknowledge all your faults then no one can insult you because you know all the bad stuff being said is true anyway.
Personally I’m proud to be the humblest person I know. I have so much to be humble about. Maybe that’s why I feel obligated to stand up and defend charity. You have to be humble to give it and to receive it.
An August night in Texas was meant for a sleeping porch. Lorena and Henry stepped from the back hallway of their wooden farmhouse on to the screened-in room. Not much of a breeze greeted them, not much of a respite from the heat but just enough for them to drift off to pleasant dreams, eventually.
They were newlyweds, and each night began with whispers, laughter and intimate caresses amid the cricket song and frog serenades. A heavy sigh from Lorena’s full lips caused Henry to lift himself on his elbow.
“You still don’t feel guilty about Billy Boy, do you?” he asked.
“It was those big brown eyes,” Lorena replied. “They were so hurt the night I told him I had decided to marry you instead of him.”
“He couldn’t have really thought you would choose a shiftless cowboy who wandered into town from Virginia just six months ago. He’s a kid.”
Lorena did not like the tone of Henry’s voice, though she knew it was expected. He had the nicest farm for miles around and had worked years to make it the best. Henry hardly looked his forty years of age, lean, surprisingly few wrinkles for a man who had sweated in the sun all day. She could not help, though, to think often of Billy Boy’s awkward smile. And he was so tall. A smile crept across her face.
“Just a year younger than me. That’s why it broke my heart to crush his dreams.”
“He’s gotta learn to work more and dream less.”
Snapping twigs and rustling leaves caused Lorena to sit up. “What was that?”
“Critters. When you live in the country like we do you have to expect to hear the critters at night.” Henry tried to pull her back down on the bed, but she shook his hands away.
“I lived my life around critters,” Lorena said as she slipped from the bed and walked to the screened window. “No owls tonight.” She turned to Henry. “You know, it wasn’t very nice of you to laugh at Billy Boy when he slipped in and sat on the back pew of the church during the wedding. You made everybody else laugh at him too. He turned so red. So pitiful.”
“So pitifully poor he couldn’t provide a proper house for a bride,” Henry replied.
His tone again bothered Lorena, but she admitted in her heart that it didn’t make any sense to pick a man who would have to work twenty years to give her what another man, a perfectly good respectable man, could give her right now. Lorena slid back on the bed and noticed how the moonlight reflected on Henry’s glistening, sweaty chest, deciding she had made the right decision after all.
More snapping and rustling, followed by the click of a shotgun. Lorena leaned forward, straining to look through the porch screen. She saw a tall shadow, then heard a loud pop and squinted at a bright flash. Turning her head, Lorena screamed. Henry’s face was gone, in its place a gooey, bloody mess.
I looked at a picture of my father from World War II. He was kneeling by a German shepherd in front of a row of dog houses somewhere in Alaska. That’s what he did for a while during the war: train dogs for battle in a cold climate so they’d be ready to go Germany. Dad looked very happy; the dog, not so much. So I let my imagination go wild and wrote what I guessed the dog was thinking.
My bladder is about blast open, the dog thought as he tugged gently against the harness held tightly by the man in uniform. I can see from here the perfect tree to lift my leg on but this idiot just won’t me go.
The man stroked the German shepherd’s thick coat. “That’s my big boy. Sit still a little bit longer so the nice man can take our picture.”
Your big boy my ass. I’d turn around and take a nip at you, but Mama always said never to bite the hand that feeds you.
“Do you want another picture, maybe over there by the dog houses?” the photographer asked.
Oh, hell no.
“Sure, that sounds like a great idea,” the man holding the dog’s harness said.
Where did I go wrong? I was a good puppy. I never strayed from Mama’s side like my brothers and sisters did. All she had to do what give out a little woof and I was right there. Then this man in uniform one day and picked me up and looked into my eyes. He seemed like a nice enough fellow. He fed me well, taught me all sorts of new games and gave me my own little house to sleep in at night. It gets cold up here in—whatever the name of this place is. But he seems to think I can hold my poop and crap all day. Doesn’t he know this stuff has to come out eventually?
“How about that one over there?” the photographer said. “Make it look like he’s just coming out for the day.”
This isn’t even my house. My house is down the hill. The stupid husky lives here. He doesn’t know any better than to shit in his house. It smells like hell.
“Come on, boy,” the man in the uniform said, “let’s jog on over there for another picture.”
No jogging. Do you know what jogging does to my bladder?
“Hey, big boy, cooperate,” the man said, tugging at the harness. “Just a few more shots and then we’ll play games again.”
Play games? I like playing games. But I have to lift my leg on that tree first.
“You’re going to make my family very, very happy. They’re going to get to see me, you and the great scenery here in Alaska. For years to come, my family can pull out this picture and talk about how I served in the Army during World War II in Alaska.”
Don’t you know I didn’t understand half of what you just said? I know your basic human talk—food, play games, time for sleep, sic ‘em—you know, all the important stuff.
“Okay, that’s all the film on this roll,” the photographer said. “Do you want one print of each shot?”
“Yeah, that sounds good.”
Dammit, I can’t hold it any longer. Oh hell, I’ll just lift my leg and piss on his shoe. I hope I still get fed tomorrow morning.
When the kids were young and mayhem reigned supreme in the house, I sometimes begged my wife to allow me to go camping by myself for a weekend for a little peace and quiet.
My favorite spot was out in the woods by the Withlacoochee River. My little pup tent took no time at all to set up and a quick trip among the trees provided enough wood and kindling for the fire. Sometimes I could hear other campers in the distance but most of the time I savored my solitude in the silence. It was about midnight several years ago that my contemplations were interrupted by several howls of laughter.
Looking about, I tried to determine where the noise was coming from. The laughter stopped, only to be followed by the crunching of leaves and twigs. I felt my heart in my throat. My mouth went dry. I cursed myself for not owning a gun even though I didn’t know how to use one. Maybe one of the larger logs in the fire would suffice as a weapon. I heard the laugh right behind me and jumped.
“What you all fidgety about, man?”
From the shadows ambled a bear of an old man with a long gray-streaked beard which I supposed had been dark amber when he was young. He had a limp which favored his left foot which looked like it had been mauled by something with sharp teeth. He plopped to the ground up across the fire from me and let out such a giggle-tinged grunt that I could no longer be afraid of him.
“Think there be skunk apes here about?” he asked more as a joke than a question.
“Well,” I replied, “I’ve never seen one.”
“Ever thunk they be ghosts of critters long gone? That’s how you folks can sometimes see them, but never catch one or see a track. Maybe they just love these old swamps and don’t want to go away.”
When he smiled, I noticed his teeth look like yellowed stalactites and stalagmites in a yawning cavern. His tongue darted out like a pink slime creature venturing from the abyss of his gullet.
“That’s an interesting theory.” I covered my mouth with my hand to keep him from seeing the flicker of a smile. “Have you ever seen a skunk ape?”
He let go with another cackling laugh. “You’d be surprised by what I’ve done and seen in these swamps.”
“Is that so?” I replied with my hand still across my lips. I began to think my kids weren’t so peculiar after all.
“You ain’t scared, are you, young fella? There ain’t no need to be.”
“That’s a relief.”
“I can tell you don’t believe in skunk apes, ghosts or nothin’ else that lurks about in the darkness.”
“I don’t mean any disrespect, sir, but, no, I don’t believe in skunk apes, ghosts or things that go bump in the night.”
“Then more fool you!” The old man threw back his head, howled in laughter for several moments before evaporating into the darkness.
One night Joe snapped. He listened to one too many telemarketing calls from a recorded message or a live human being who stumbled over reading from an index card in an unfamiliar language, English.
He sat with the phone in his lap and waited for the inevitable string of phone calls. The first was from a voice which told him his neighborhood was experiencing a crime wave.
“The only criminal in our neighbor lives a couple of miles away and he smokes pot. He never leaves his house. Quietest home for miles around. No, I’m not spending $10,000 for a security system. I have three dogs who bark when they see a bunny rabbit hop across the back yard. I want to get back to my television program now. Jayne Mansfield’s daughter is about to beat up another murder suspect. I keep hoping she dyes her hair platinum blonde like her mother. Have a nice day.”
The next call was from a bank informing him there was not a single thing wrong with his account and there was nothing to worry about but…
“Good. Since there’s nothing wrong I’m hanging up.”
He didn’t even listen long enough to find out what the third call was selling.
“You’ve got to stop calling like this. My wife is getting suspicious. This was funny at first, but now I know you don’t care about me at all. You’re just making fun of me. I’m a 65 year old man, dammit, and I deserve respect!”
Three minutes did not pass before the phone rang again.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so rough on you. Yeah, I know. I know. I love you too. If loving you is wrong I don’t want to be right. Okay, one more lunch but that’s it. The same place, the same table. But we’ve got to be careful. Meeeeee and Mrs. Jones got a thang going on.” Joe was so proud. He sang the entire song in the right key.
The next call was from a real human being. This was too good to be true.
“I did exactly as you told me,” Joe whispered into the receiver.
“What?” It was the service representative from the vacuum cleaner company trying to set up a yearly free check-up. Except it was never really free. Joe couldn’t get them out of the house without buying some new accessory.
“There’s blood all over the place,” Joe continued, trying to create a scared whimper in his voice.
“You didn’t tell me there was going to be so much blood.”
“Sir, are you all right?”
“Do I need to call 911?”
“Is that Mr. and Mrs. 11’s little girl 9?”
“Stay on the line, and we’ll have someone out there in a few minutes.”
Joe began to think he had carried his little joke too far, when his wife grabbed the receiver.
“Who is this?”
“Universal Vacuum,” the voice replied weakly. “Is the gentlemen all right?”
“What are you wearing, Mr. Universal Vacuum Man?”
“You sound hideous.”
“I’m a guy.”
“You should be ashamed of yourself, Mr. Universal Vacuum Man.”
“I—I’m sorry…I think.”
“Well, you better apologize. And never call this number again. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the voice said.
“One more thing. No more cheese!”
As Ruth peered through her kitchen window at the darkening skies, the phone rang and she answered it. She heard her husband’s voice.
“Hi, Ben. What’s the latest word on the storm?”
“There’s nothing to worry about. Just get the kids in the car right now and drive over the bridge to the mainland and go to your mother’s house in Tallahassee. You have plenty of time if you leave right now.”
“But what about the chickens? And the key to the garage? I never did find it.”
“The chickens will take care of themselves, and there’s nothing in the garage to lock up. The main thing is, don’t wait for the storm surge. Keep an eye out for the neighbors. When they head for the Eastpoint bridge, you get out too.”
“Oh, they all left an hour ago.”
“Then get in the car with the kids and get out now. Once the tide starts building, the waves will sweep over the bridge and you can’t get out. You must get out before the winds pick up. You got that?”
“I don’t understand what they mean when they say level five. What do they mean?”
“Don’t worry about that. Just grab the kids and get in the car as soon as you hang up. Okay?”
“Can’t I just go to Apalachicola? It’s such a long way all the way to Tallahassee. I don’t like the traffic there.”
“You’re lucky there’s no traffic on St. George Island. Promise me you’re leaving right now.”
“Okay.” After putting down the receiver, Ruth reached for her purse to find the house and car keys, but looked out the window when she heard little Billy screaming. She saw five-year-old Jack chasing three-year-old Billy with a tree branch.
“Jack! Put down that stick!”
“But I don’t want to!”
Ruth ran out into the yard to grab the branch from Jack. Glancing at the swollen tide off the shore, she told the boys, “Now go to the car right now.”
“But I don’t want to!” Jack replied with a giggle and ran in the opposite direction.
“Jack! Come back here right now!” Ruth chased him for a few minutes and finally grabbed him by the hand and dragged him back to the car, opened the door and pushed him in. Billy crawled into the seat without a word. “Wait here while I go get my purse.”
Back in the kitchen, Ruth picked up her purse and rifled through it, finding the house key but not the car key. Going down on her knees she searched for the keys, reaching under the table and chairs. She heard giggling and looked up. Jack was in the doorway jingling the keys in his hand.
“Jack! Give me those keys!”
“But I don’t want to!”
Ruth jumped up and raced to the door. Jack scrambled down the steps and ran down the road. Pausing briefly, Ruth considered whether she should take the time to lock the door and go after Jack. She decided to lock the door and looked through her purse to find the key. After a long moment she realized she had left them on the kitchen table. Running back in the house, Ruth found the key, went out the door and locked it. By this time she could not see Jack but could hear his giggle among the barrier brush.
“Jack! Come here right this moment!”
“But I don’t want to!”
Ruth ran toward his voice, stumbling on the sands. As she tried to stand, Jack ran up and dangled the key in front of her face. Snatching the key from him with one hand she whacked his bottom with the other. Ruth stood and held Jack’s arm in an angry grip.
“Come on and stop this!”
“But I don’t want to.”
She threw him in the back seat with Billy and sat behind the wheel. The key fell from her fingers. By the time she picked it up and put it in the ignition, rain began to fall. She glanced back at the gulf. She saw a large swell coming towards them. Ruth pulled the car onto the driveway and headed for the bridge leading to Eastpoint and mainland safety. She stopped as she saw angry white tufts of water splashing over the railings. Ben’s warning echoed in her head. Once the waves crashed across the bridge, there was no getting out.
“Boys, I think we better go back to the house before we get wet.”
Jack sniffled. “But I don’t want to.”
When I awoke this morning I was confused. Looking down at me was my mother. She’s been dead for fifty years, but there she was, looking as young and beautiful as I remembered from my childhood.
“And how is Jerry this morning?” she asked.
I was so dumbfounded I could not find the words to respond. This bald man came up, put his arm around my mother’s shoulder and smiled.
“Look, Daddy, Jerry is wide awake and ready for breakfast.”
Okay, this man was not my father. My father was not bald and he rarely if ever smiled. Mother picked me up and handed me to this man she called Daddy. How this guy could hold me I could not figure out. I was a two hundred pound old man. For that matter how could my mother pick me up? And when I was the size for my father to carry, he never did. At least I did not remember him carrying me. There was something terribly wrong about this situation. They were calling me Jerry and that was my name. The woman looked very much like my mother. And this man was a complete stranger.
“Bring Jerry in here, Anthony,” the woman called out from the kitchen.
Now I was really confused. My father’s name was Grady. And I never knew anyone named Anthony until my daughter started dating. My daughter, where was she? For that matter, where was my wife? And why was I peeing in my pants? I hadn’t peed in my pants in more than sixty-five years.
“I’ve got to change his diaper first, Heather,” this man,trying to pass himself off as my father, said. My real father never changed a diaper in his life.
I wrinkled my tiny brow. He called my mother Heather. My mother’s name was Florida. My daughter’s name was Heather. All this confusion made me very unhappy. The only thing I could think to do was cry.
“Why is the baby crying?” Heather called out from the kitchen.
“If your pants were wet you’d cry too,” this man who called himself Anthony said.
After he changed my diaper, I began to feel hungry. Bacon and eggs would taste good, I thought. Maybe not. I now could not rightly remember what bacon and eggs tasted like. I had bad dreams all the time. My wife could usually tell me what they meant, but at this moment I could not remember her name. I did remember how good that bottle of milk tasted. My father—whatever his actual name was—was pretty good slipping it between my little lips.
I decided he was not so bad. I looked at my mother and knew I had loved her a long time, way back in a past that was fading away and into a future that was brand new yet so familiar. Maybe even better.
Author’s Note: I wrote this before my daughter gave birth to a beautiful baby named Olivia. And I’m still around so this story doesn’t make any sense, except I think it’s kinda cute. Happy July 4th.