That Poor? Really?

Mom and Fam

Today is my mother’s 79th birthday.  Born in 1934, about a year after Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, she was forever shaped by the forces of the Great Depression.  If my siblings and I left food on our plates, she chided us to remember the starving children in faraway places and then picked at the food we left, as if by eating the crumbs she could satisfy those hungry children she saw in her mind’s eye.

Mom never knew her biological father, who died when she was three.  Before her tenth birthday, she had lost the two siblings closest in age to her, a brother who was five and a sister who was seventeen.  Her mother died when I was an infant, and her three remaining siblings died during my teen years and young adulthood.  She suffered the loss of three miscarriages and the loss of my father—and six years ago the greatest loss of all when my brother died at the age of 47.

My mother has always been a worrier.  When my four siblings and I were young adults, before the loss of my brother, we teased her that if she didn’t have anything to worry about, she would worry about what she was going to worry about next.  Back then we had no understanding of why she couldn’t sleep until she knew we were safe in our beds.  But when I think of the magnitude of the losses she suffered from childhood on, I know that my mother is a woman of uncommon strength.

And I wonder now, as I sit in my comfortable suburban home, how many children who have lived through the current economic crisis that has spanned their childhoods will grow up with memories similar to my mother’s.

When my husband and I volunteer at a cold weather shelter each winter, we are most moved by the children, who deal with the dire circumstances of their parents in many different ways.  One six-year-old’s mother told me that her little boy had started wetting the bed again, not an easy thing to deal with in a temporary shelter in a church.  One mother of teenagers told me how she took her children to the library so that they could stay warm and that she encouraged them to read the classics that she had read in school.  And one young man, angry and embarrassed, withdrew to a corner with his arms crossed, refusing to speak to anyone.  Another told me how he left the shelter for the campus of the nearby community college, where he took classes free and relied on the help of professors to secure books.

When I was teaching, most of my colleagues showed compassion for students in such circumstances, quietly trying to help them feel comfortable in a world where some of their classmates drove more expensive cars than we teachers did.  But once, when the school where I taught required students to buy a writing handbook, a student who was receiving lunch through the free-and-reduced meals program came to me when I was head of the department and told me that his parents had no money for the book.  I arranged with the business manager to cover the cost of the book from the school’s general fund, as our principal always directed us to do for students in need.

Usually in such circumstances, the student quietly told the teacher when there was such a need, and this was not a student I taught.  But I understood why he had not approached his teacher when she came into the seminar room at lunch.  As the teacher shoveled a generous lunch into her mouth, she told her colleagues, “If those kids can wear designer jeans and carry a cell phone, they can afford to buy the damned handbook.”

The teachers sat for a moment in stunned silence.

Sitting in my office, which adjoined the seminar room, I fumed.  I rose from my chair, thinking of my mother and those children at the cold weather shelter.

But just as I was about to inject myself into the conversation, one of the teachers said quietly, “You know, kids can get designer jeans from the thrift store for a couple of dollars.  And there are programs that give homeless kids a cell phone so that they can make a call in an emergency.  You won’t see those kids texting on those phones, but you might see them pretending to talk on them at lunch so they seem like everyone else.”

I cheered her silently and sat back down, watching the scene through my open door.  The offending teacher lowered her fork onto her plate, her face flushing in what I hoped was shame.

“Really?” she asked.

“Really,” said the other teacher, picking up her own plate and going to the sink, her back to the table.

And, as always at such times, my thoughts turned again to my mother, who sits in a nursing home, no longer able to speak of the circumstances of her childhood.  But I’ll be forever grateful that, even though I grew up in a family that sometimes needed government assistance, my mother always, always reminded me to have empathy for those who had even less.

Happy Birthday, Mom!  Thank you for teaching me almost everything I know about kindness.

And how about you?  Tell me a story of compassion.