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.