A Gift to Myself
Labor Day weekend we visited the in-laws in SmallSouthernTown and with the story still fresh on my mind, I asked my father-in-law to tell me more about how he met her and how their relationship developed. I was astonished to learn that he had been taking care of her in some form or fashion for nearly forty years.
They met at the grocery store where FIL had his first job as a butcher. She would walk from her home (the same one in which she died) to the store every week to get her meagre supply of groceries. It wasn't long before the frugality of her purchases prompted FIL to realize that she was in dire straits. He began saving cuts of meat, chicken thighs and legs and assorted pork parts for her.
Store policy would not allow anything in the meat case that was over a day old, so anything that was left over the following day was either thrown out or taken home by employees. FIL would bring out the purloined meat and give it to Miss Jimmy, exhorting her to take it lest it be wasted.
After a while, he started squirreling away dented canned goods and expired boxed goods, knowing that they were still perfectly edible. He couldn't stand to see the waste while Miss Jimmy went hungry. Sometimes he purchased sale and clearance items in bulk for her. She wouldn't have accepted them if she knew he had paid for them, so he convinced her that they had been destined for the dumpster.
That went on for many years. FIL grew very fond of Miss Jimmy, and she him.
One day she stopped coming to the store. FIL became terribly worried. He had never known her last name and he didn't know where she lived. But, as in most small towns, there is an internal grapevine for divining those sorts of things. Eventually FIL found out that Miss Jimmy had been stricken with diabetes and was so ill that she could no longer make the long journey on foot to the grocery store.
He grilled the townspeople that came into the store until he encountered someone who could direct him to Miss Jimmy's house. The next day he made his first grocery delivery to her door.
FIL had known that Miss Jimmy was poor, but that was the first time he realized just how poor. Her home was in terrible condition. The porch and the roof sagged with age and rot, the doorframes were warped and the windows were covered over with cardboard where panes had been broken and never replaced. The paint peeled away in chunks, leaving great expanses of gray and weathered wood exposed to the elements.
A lone window at the side of the house sported lace curtains, and a warm glow shone from it. It was the single room in which she was living, unable to afford to heat the rest of the damp and drafty house. Even that one room was piercingly cold. She was using a kerosene heater, but in an effort to conserve the precious fuel, she kept it just barely warm enough to survive. FIL added kerosene to his weekly list of supplies for Miss Jimmy and told her to turn it up until it was warm as toast in her shabby little room.
As the years went by, FIL and MIL provided Miss Jimmy with a multitude of other items such as an electric blankets and warm clothing. But it was tricky business taking care of someone with such a fierce sense of pride and independance. They had to contrive all kinds of stories to convince Miss Jimmy that she was not the recipient of a charitable act, but in fact, doing them a favor by taking the items off of their hands.
Miss Jimmy died in 1995.
With the holiday season, FIL had been terribly, terribly busy, (in addition to working as a butcher, he had a Wild Game Processing Business out of his home) and had been unable to get over to see Miss Jimmy for a couple weeks. She died alone, her teeth frozen in a glass beside her bed.
It ate FIL alive.
Which brings me to the point of my post. It is absolutely shameful that people in our country are living in such poverty. That they are alone. Cold. Scared.
I mentioned a while back that I was going to volunteer for the homeless, but it has become a logistical nightmare for reasons too numerous to go into. Suffice it to say that I have been monumentally disheartened by that.
However, I have come accross a new opportunity through the Community Outreach program at the Elementary school, (I know, I said I was done with PTA, but this is worth putting up with all the petty crap) where I can bring food to people just like Miss Jimmy. But it's more than just food. It's a friendly face on a lonely day. It's a human voice, a warm touch. Someone to listen to their stories. Someone to smooth a blanket over their lap or brew a cup of tea. Someone to fuss and care.
If you have some time...even as little as an hour every week...consider volunteering for a program like this in your area. There are so many people out there cold and alone and there doesn't need to be.
Miss Jimmy touched me in a way that I can scarcely do justice with words. If doing this leads me to others like her, then it will be I who receives the greatest gift.
It's a gift we can all give ourselves.