It finally got cool in Steubenville. I love cool weather, but the sudden change always flares my chronic illness a bit. Today’s the first time in several days that I felt physically well.
I was still more than a little depressed. I intended to mope about the house all day, living in one of my Walter Mitty fantasies. I do that a lot. One of the reasons I’m so awkward in public is that I’m constantly pretending things, and sometimes I forget what I’m doing and narrate my fantasies under my breath.
Today I wasn’t pretending that I’m an insufferable Mary Sue fanfiction Tolkein Elf, or a Jedi or a member of the X-Men. I wasn’t pretending that I had inherited Jeff Bezos’s fortune and spent it all on mitigating climate change and on building a beautiful fine arts school for talented youth in West Virginia where my imaginary Distant Cousin Tom Hiddleston regularly visits me for high tea and a tour of the theater department. I was having the most delightful fantasy of all. I was pretending to be myself, only successful. My successful self lives in a nice pleasant neighborhood in Columbus– Clintonville, or Beechwold, or Old North Columbus on a block far from the railroad track. Her house has a double lot with a postage stamp orchard and a small coop of Easter egger bantams. She does not blog for dear life, hoping for gratuities so the rent check won’t bounce, but only for a hobby because she feels like it. She is a stay-at-home mom of seven beautiful and talented children who like to do crafts. She is a pillar of the community at her church, where she teaches CCD and runs the bake sale. People constantly compliment how helpful and energetic she is. She has family and friends who love her. She does not have PCOS or fibromyalgia. There’s no scar from a bowel obstruction or pucker from a C-section on her belly. She never has flashbacks, anxiety or panic attacks. She never suffered through a rape, poverty or that traumatic hormonal mess that left her swollen as if pregnant and bleeding from an empty womb at fourteen weeks. Her parents never joined a cult like the Charismatic Renewal. She never had the nightmare about the baby falling out the window. She has thick long reddish hair the color of Autumn leaves, and wears a size eight dress with pockets.
Thinking about Size Eight Mary is the saddest fantasy of all, because I want to be her the most of all. And because, of all my fantasies, it’s the closest to possible. Some people actually have lives that look like that. Mine never will.
I was lying in bed in my pajamas, pretending to be Size Eight Mary, and intending to lie there pretending to be Size Eight Mary until noon while Michael took care of Rosie, when I got a text from a neighbor. She needed a lift to the food pantry.
I changed out of my pajamas and got the car from its hiding place. I drove her through Steubenville and out to the freeway, to get to the Methodist church. The whole time I was pretending to be Size Eight Mary, and the neighbor was talking on and on about what churches around here had food pantries and on what days of the month, for what documentation. A lot of the time you don’t even need to prove poverty to get a box of food, just call ahead to reserve one and show up with an ID and an address. You do need a car to get there, of course, which is not fair: the poorest don’t have a car OR enough food, and they can end up in dire straits.
I used to be surprised at how readily the poor people in LaBelle start rattling off the names of food pantries, clothing giveaways and free lunches around town. It was something people in my social circle growing up would’ve been ashamed to say they knew. You weren’t supposed to talk about having needs; you were supposed to try to present as comfortably middle class, no matter what. Some people helped out with local food drives and some scoffed at them, saying they actually made poverty worse by enabling. But nobody admitted to ever needing help. Now I’m used to that kind of talk. The list of food pantries is part of the endless telegraph of information flowing up and down the narrow one-way streets of a poor neighborhood: where to get food, where to get coats, who got arrested, who not to trust, which blocks not to walk on after dark.
Size Eight Mary doesn’t know about the poor people’s telegraph. She doesn’t know where the food pantries are. If you asked for help she would deeply want to assist you, but she wouldn’t know where to start.
We drove up and down a beautiful ribbon of two-lane road, past green hills and funny little grocery stores and Protestant churches. It finally looks like mid-Autumn, but the trees aren’t all turned yet. Some are riots of color, but most are just gold around the edges, hiding behind a wall of tired green. I love driving on country roads.
For the first fifteen years I was trapped in Steubenville in terrible health, I didn’t have a car. I don’t even like to think back about how trapped I felt for a decade and a half, with nowhere to go except the bus route. Going for drives has been the best thing about my life lately. And I’m always excited when a neighbor needs a lift somewhere, because I remember what it’s like to have to call around for help.
Size Eight Mary has always had easy transportation. She can’t imagine what it’s like to be without it.
We finally pulled up at the Methodist church. A nice older woman in a pink sweater came to the window and asked me if I wanted a box too. I did want one. We’re making enough to not qualify for food stamps but not enough to be comfortable, and it’s hard. But I hadn’t signed up in time, and besides, Rosie is gluten free and I have to be in ketosis for my PCOS. I didn’t know what kind of food they’d have that we could eat. So I shook my head and said we were just here for the neighbor’s box.
It turned out not to be just one box. The volunteer went into the church and three volunteers came out, pushing a wheelbarrow of things. My neighbor has several children so they gave her four loaves of bread, six jars of peanut butter, a box of cans, a bag of frozen hamburger, several sacks of white and sweet potatoes, two heads of lettuce and a mountain of ripe fruit. They also gave her a flier advertising their Thanksgiving boxes, and an invitation to their church dinner besides. The lady in pink had apparently gone through their stock and gotten her extra things since she has so many children. And they did it all without proselytizing or being mean. They were as friendly and welcoming as if my neighbor were the one doing them a favor taking the food off their hands.
I smelled the pears and apples all the way back to Steubenville. It smelled like my beloved grandfather’s garden in Maryland. It smelled like the orchard that Size Eight Mary grows in her perfect backyard. It smelled like innocent excitement, baking and cider brewing, gold and red, the colors of Autumn.
Back at my neighbors house, the neighbor took most of the boxes inside, but she left me with a few sacks of potatoes and most of the fruit. “We’ll never go through it all before it rots,” she said.
We will–or, at least, Rosie and Michael will like soup made from some of the potatoes, and they and the guinea pig will eat the apples. But with me in ketosis I didn’t think we could finish all of this before it went bad. After I said goodbye to my neighbor, I took a sizable portion of my treasures to the Friendship Room.
They always need fresh fruit and vegetables at the Friendship Room. It’s in the middle of a food desert, with nowhere to spend your food stamps but the dollar store. Food comes out of cans and vacuum packs downtown. It doesn’t come from the produce section. They were glad to take them off my hands.
I wonder if Size Eight Mary knows about food deserts. It’s not the kind of thing they remember to teach in the private Catholic school where her children go.
I drove back home with my treasures, just as the clouds were gathering. For a moment I wasn’t more than a little depressed.
Size Eight Mary followed me into the house, wanting to know the things that I knew.
Image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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