In the summer of 1985, my parents and I went to visit their respective families near East Chicago, Indiana. During that time, Daddy and I, along with his brother Hallie, drove out to the area around Cedar Lake, where they had lived for a time in the late 1930s. “I want you to promise me that you will never forget where you come from,” Daddy told me as we started our walking tour of their old neighborhood.
They showed me the rundown, two-room house that was home to their mother and her thirteen children. They told me how their father had left her alone in the middle of the Depression after moving the whole family to Indiana from Kentucky in search of work. Left alone with a large family to support, my grandmother and her oldest daughter went to work, leaving the older children to mind the younger ones. Daddy and Hallie missed a year of grammar school because they were offered work hauling coal for one of local men which allowed them to earn extra money to buy food. Their family subsisted on navy bean soup and if they were lucky enough to have a little extra money, they could usually buy a hambone with some scraps of meat still on it to add a little flavor to it.
As they reminisced, Daddy told me the story of the year his family could not afford anything at all for Christmas. There was just no money to spare, even for a little meat for dinner. On Christmas Day, there came a knock on the door and there on the stoop was a man from the Salvation Army, with a ham, some vegetables, and a huge bag of gumdrops for the children to share. They feasted like kings that Christmas, because of the kindness of strangers. Daddy never forgot that kindness. He grew up, married his childhood sweetheart, had a large family of his own and retold that story again and again. He gave every year to help those who found themselves in the same dire straights that he himself remembered so vividly.
I was only twelve that summer in 1985, but seeing that tiny house and knowing how frigid Chicago area winters can be, Daddy’s family history lesson left a deep and lasting impression. As soon as I started working at fifteen, I often sought out the Salvation Army kettles for myself. I never forgot the kindness of those strangers from my father’s childhood and so their generosity rippled on into a second generation. I grew up, married and have my own children now. I have often told them the story of my father’s family, so that they will also understand their own family history. Even though Andrew is only nine and Eugene, who is named after Daddy, is only five, they too can now tell the story of that Christmas feast, which to them seems like so very long ago.
This past weekend, I had to take my boys to buy new boots for the winter. In the midst of a divorce and only working part-time which allows me to be home for them when they come home from school, I was being very careful about what I was spending in the shoe store. Andrew, well aware of the fact that I was pinching pennies, opened his own wallet and offered me the money he still had from his birthday back in June. I gave him a hug and told him that no, that money was his to spend on himself however he wanted, and that I would take of things such as boots. I found myself with new appreciation for my grandmother, as we are a long way from the harsh times that she faced.
As we left the store, I stopped to pull out some money to put in the Salvation Army kettle outside and only having one dollar, I gave it to Eugene to put in and told Andrew he could do it next time. He smiled and pulled out his wallet, saying, “No, Mom it’s okay, I’ve got my own money.” He rifled though his wallet and pulled out a twenty. I gently pointed out that he had pulled out a twenty and not just a dollar and he said, “Yeah, I know Mom, but if I’ve had this twenty dollars this long and forgot about it, I don’t really need it that much. They can use it to help somebody who really needs it.” I was speechless and I finally managed to say, “Okay, that’s up to you. It’s your money so you get to do what you want to do with it.”
As we walked outside, they ran up to the kettle and I saw that Andrew had carefully folded the bill so that the denomination did not show. He waited while Eugene put in the dollar I had given him and then flashed me a huge smile and with his eyes dancing with joy much the way Daddy’s used to, he put that twenty dollar bill in the kettle, wished the bell-ringer a Merry Christmas and came running back to me. “Maybe some kid will get something nice for Christmas, like Grandpa did,” he told me as he skipped back to the car.
And so the kindness of strangers ripples on into a third generation and most likely beyond. Andrew and Eugene will grow up telling and retelling the story of a grandfather they know only through old pictures, my childhood memories, and some old cassette tapes of poems that Daddy made for me when I was Andrew’s age. The kindness of strangers ripples on through my siblings, their children, and their grandchildren and through my father’s siblings, only ten of who lived to adulthood, their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Some seventy years ago, someone gave just a little bit, at a time when the entire nation was in the grip of financial strife and worried about war. That little bit has rippled outward exponentially ever since. I have often wondered, how many other families did that man from the Salvation Army visit that Christmas so long ago? How many of those other families tell and retell their stories of kindness and generosity in the same ways that my father did, carrying that generosity down through the generations?
These past few months, as I have struggled to come to terms with moving back into my parents’ home, bringing with me my sons and our dog, I find myself surrounded by memories of my father. Daddy passed away twenty years ago this past March and yet at times it is as though these walls are whispering to me, calling up all the old stories he used to tell. Even now as I write this, I am sitting at his old roll-top desk with his photograph looking back at me, smiling broadly, with a playful gleam that I had seen so many times in his hazel colored eyes, especially at this time of year.
This Christmas, as I carefully weigh the things my children want against the things I know they need, it was my child who reminded me that the greatest gifts in life are the not the ones that you receive, but the ones that you give away. You see, even if they seem so very small at the time, the ripples of generosity continue outward, well beyond the reaches of time, changing the lives of those not yet born and making this world a better place, if not in our time than, perhaps, in our grandchildren’s time.
For more information on the Salvation Army see their website: http://www.salvationarmyusa.org/usn/www_usn_2.nsf