Thursday, April 17, 2008

Life Lessons -- Learning to Give

The following essay I wrote a few years ago was printed in The Columbian newspaper on April 2, 2008 (see yesterday's blog).

I was three years old and asleep in the backseat, so I only know the beginning of this story from what my parents told me. We were on our way home from visiting family friends in The Dalles. The adults had sat up late playing pinochle, so we were traveling the two hours home in the middle of the night. In those days I-84 was a small highway, not the freeway it is today. There were few cars out at that time of night, so it was easy for my mom and dad to see the car slowing and pulling to the side of the road in front of them. Suddenly, as my mom recounted, there was a burst of blue and then it was dark where the slowing car’s lights had been. I woke up as our car slowed to a stop behind the dark car. My dad got out and walked up to the disabled car. A man got out and the two of them went to the front of the car and raised the hood. My mom, never one to sit by, got out, too, telling me to stay put in the backseat. A woman got out of the passenger side of the car when my mom approached. The four adults stood talking at the front of the car. Eventually my mom and the other woman opened the back door of the woman’s car and looked in. Mom came back to our car and said that we were going to give these people a ride into Portland so we would have to make room. As she moved our coats, toys and miscellaneous belongings into the trunk, she explained that the family was having “hard times”, a condition I would grow up to learn that my parents had had their own share of. This family knew people in Portland who they could stay with if they could just get to town. Mom and the other woman started pulling children from the backseat of the other car. There were three or four of them, all young, plus a very small baby wrapped in a blanket. My mom called it a “blue baby”. I know now that it probably had some heart problem, which, for that time, probably also meant it wasn’t going to live long. At the time, all I could picture was a round healthy baby with blue skin – how strange!

It was a cold damp night and these children who piled into our car were dressed only in lightweight clothes, no coats, hats or blankets, except for the blue baby. I don’t know how we did it, but we all managed to get into our car; I do remember that it was very cramped. We drove on to Portland and to our house. We all went inside and, while the other father placed a call to the people they knew, my mom went to work feeding everyone and then bundling up the children in blankets on a hide-a-bed couch so that they could rest while waiting for their ride. She then went through our house gathering clothing, coats and blankets that she packed into bags to send along with this family. I was very young, but even then I was in awe at what my mom and dad were doing for these people. I didn’t yet understand wealth or poverty, and I didn’t understand that we were not wealthy people. We had a small home, we had food on our table, but there was never any extra. We lived within our means, but those means were limited. Yet, here was my mom, packing up our things to give to this family who had less than us, who currently didn’t have a home or a table on which to put food they probably couldn’t afford anyway. In response to the thanks and gratitude of the other parents, my mom kept saying, “It’s okay; it’s the least we can do. We all go through hard times.”

My life was changed by what happened that night. At a very young age, I learned about selflessness, giving and respect. I’ve often wondered what became of that family. Did they find a place to settle? Were they able to make it through their “hard times”? Do any of those children remember that night? Were any of their lives changed by the quiet generosity they experienced at the hands of my parents? I like to think so.

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