A Mason jar & a manila envelope

Saturday afternoon late, the doorbell rang. Ever since the kids moved off our doorbell doesn’t ring much. Tim and I lead pretty quite lives with our books and our demonic dog. Oh. Sure. Halloween is an exception but on the day-to-day basis, especially on Saturdays, the house is pretty quiet.

I was engrossed in Tom Franklin’s novel, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. Tim was grading papers.  When I opened the door, there was a pretty young girl on the other side. Long brunette hair, sweet face, pink sweatshirt. At the curb beside the mailboxes was an older model SUV.

Tim and I have a rule. If kids are selling something we are buying. Our kids did their share of fundraisers. We try to be the kind of neighbors who help the kids out, the way good neighbors used to help ours out.

She did indeed have two brochures and a manila envelope clutched in her hands.

She stuttered than started again: I am selling things to help out my father who has a brain tumor.

How does that work? I asked.

What do you mean? she asked. I don’t understand your question.

I started to explain that I didn’t understand how selling things helps a dad with a brain tumor. But then I stopped, remembering another girl years ago. This one about the same age, only blonder and carrying a Mason jar, instead:

Grandpa Harve had moved back to Tennessee to live with Aunt Cil, just outside Church Hill. Cil was Grandma Ruth’s sister. Mama  had sent him there because she had to have surgery to remove uterine cysts during the summer of 1967 and couldn’t care for Grandpa while she was recuperating. Aunt Sue and Thelma made sure we kids were looked after while Mama recuperated from her surgery. Spurred by my concern for Mama, I took a jar and went door-to-door throughout Lake Forest, collecting nickels, dimes and pennies.

“Do you have change you could spare?” I asked one man who answered the rap on the door.

“What’s this for?” he asked.

“We’re buying flowers for a lady who had to have surgery,” I replied. My friend Sarah was standing beside me, not saying a word.

“Which lady?” the man inquired, pressing me for details, suspicious, I suppose.

“Shelby Spears,” I said. “My mama.”  

The fellow studied me for a moment longer before dropping a dollar in the jelly jar cupped in my hands. The memory of going door-to-door, collecting money to buy Mama flowers shames me in ways I can’t explain. I was only 10. I knew no other way to earn money to do the things for Mama that I knew Daddy would do if he were around, like buy her flowers when she went to the hospital.  (After the Flag has been Folded, HarperCollins, 2006).


We don’t want to buy anything, but we will make a donation, I said.

Tim handed me a bill from his wallet. I handed it to the girl and asked, What’s your daddy’s name? She told me. Does he have health insurance? I asked, truly concerned. Yes, she said, but this helps with other stuff.

I watched through the shutters as she walked over to the SUV. I couldn’t tell if it was her mother or her father behind the wheel.

Tim and I both felt uncomfortable afterwards.

Not about giving the money.

Unsettled that a child would be sent to collect money on behalf of a parent. When I had taken that mason jar through the trailer park collecting dimes and dollars to buy flowers, my mother was in the hospital. She wasn’t encouraging me to do that. She didn’t even know I was doing it and when she found out later she was not at all happy with me.

But what’s even more unsettling is that a parent would be in a situation that would compel them to put such a burden upon a child.

These are hard times we are living in. Hard, hard times for many people.

Whatever the cause that compels them to do it, people are desperate for help. Her parents may not understand it, but I do know exactly how awful that was for that young girl to ask for help. This is a day she will remember for the rest of her life. It will shape who she becomes. I hope what she remembers years from now is not the shame but the concern & compassion others had for her.

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  • Desperate times for so many. And it is times like these when our compassion needs to come to the forefront. Lots of children carrying the burdens for their families. I’d like to think that the “family of God” would be willing to bear some of those burdens. This was a great post for me to read at the beginning of the week to help frame my thoughts for living out Matthew 9.36 “He saw that they were harassed and helpless …”

  • This breaks my heart. It breaks for the child, for the parent, and the circumstances but especially for the child.

  • Certainly there is no lack of manipulative, abusive parents in the world, but do we know that the person in the SUV really was the little girl’s father or mother? Could it have been a neighbor or someone else who didn’t want the child going door-to-door unsupervised? If so, does that change anything?

    But that’s just speculation on my part.

    As for children doing such things, there actually is a benefit that comes from it. It is important for us, seemingly regardless of age, to feel as though we can do something to help in difficult times. If it is true that her father had a brain tumor – or someone’s mother is having surgery – an action such as collecting money overcomes feelings of helplessness. Since helplessness typically leads to hopelessness, doing something – anything – is a way to feel that one is not insignificant and can contribute meaningfully when faced with an overwhelming challenge.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Mmm. Dr. Mike, perhaps you are right. Maybe it was a neighbor taking her around. If so it would have been good of that neighbor to do the door-to-door with that child, don’t you think?

      As to your assertion that sending a child to collect monies is a good thing for that child, gives her a meaningful way to help, I am not at all convinced. I’d like to know what others think?

      Y’all tell me. Do you think it’s a way for the child to help or do you think it’s exploitative? Am we more likely to give monies to a child than an adult?

      • Kathy

        We used to color in coloring books a lot and one day my three kids started asking me to color picture after picture for them. I thought they just really liked my coloring skills, but it turned out they were selling them to all the neighbors for a quarter. We lived in a trailer park like you and didn’t have much, but nobody was sick, or having surgery, or starving, they just decided it was a way to make money and my two boys made their cute little sister make the sale. Who buys colored coloring book pages? People bought them because they were kids. Of course I was mortified and took the kids back to each neighbor to apologize and return the money. Secretly though, I laughed and wondered if one or all of them would end up entrepreneurs or in jail someday. All this to say that, yes, people are more likely to give money to kids. It is one thing for children to do that without the knowledge of an adult, like you did or like my kids did. It is totally something else to do it with adult permission. Call me cynical, but the fact that an adult was allowing that and perhaps even encouraging it is suspect to me. It is at the very least exploitative and I think abusive.

        • Karen Spears Zacharias

          Kathy: Hilarious to think of your children out pedaling your art work. They may have a career in TV evangelism. 🙂
          But yes, I think that unless you are in a really bad, bad way, that sending your child out is emotionally abusive.

  • In the last few years, I have been the recipient of the largesse of lovely health care system (he said, dripping sarcasm), so I get the need for some extra help. What can’t get is sending my child out to panhandle. Aside from what it’s doing to her mentally, there’s also a safety aspect to letting a teen-age girl knock on a stranger’s door. No amount of money is worth my daughter’s safety.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Joel: Yes. I think that’s what bothers me. If you are sending your child to panhandle, I can’t help but you have to be in a dire situation or you have to have an ability to put out of your mind how this is affecting your child.

  • pep

    It would seem that “After the Flag…” and “…Double Wide…” have crossed paths. I think you are on to something. I think there are a lot of these stories out there right now. Stories where people are reaching out, helping and leaving the untidy loose ends to God. We will do so with this story as well.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      These stories are always out there. I think it’s a matter of are we watching.

  • Joe Galloway

    i lived for a time in india. begging was a profession for entire families, even clans, and they used their children as most effective tools. they even mutilated young kids, babies even, to make their pitch more effective…..also seemingly pregnant women at the stoplights, screaming “Baby Coming! Baby Coming! and begging for taxifare to the hospital. one at every corner sort of watered down the pitch.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Joe: I have not traveled to India but we did see this similiar kind of begging in Vietnam. It does not rend my heart — tho, perhaps it should — the way this incident did.

  • Karen Spears Zacharias

    It’s the desperation that troubles me most in this particular case. I am seeing a kind of desperation that I’ve written about — Depression-era — but that I haven’t witnessed first-hand until the past two years.