In an act of compassion that was typical of him, my dad—when I was in seventh grade—became a patron, of sorts, to a struggling family in our small town.
It started one Saturday in late fall after he’d been duck hunting that morning—an activity he minimally enjoyed and rarely participated in, unless his business cronies cornered him. That rainy afternoon, Dad was leaving to pick up his cache of ducks from a woman I'll call Mrs. X, where he’d left them a few hours earlier on his way home from the hunting expedition. Mrs. X lived on the "other side of the tracks." The other hunters had recommended her as someone who would clean and dress small game and wild fowl for a reasonable charge. The conversational exchange in the kitchen captured my attention.
“If it’s all right with you, Naomi,” Dad said to my mother, “I am going to leave most the ducks with Mrs. X. I'll tell her you aren’t able to cook them soon," he continued, "because of prior commitments . . . and you're hoping she can use them while they’re fresh."
My mother beamed. "What a great way to approach it, even if I have absolutely no evening plans this week," she said, smiling at my dad. She never did like cooking local duck, claiming their fishy smell lingered in the house.
I, on the other hand, did not smile, but scrunched up my brow in deep thought. As a twelve-year-old, I was just learning to make sense of ‘white lies,’ to judge when it was acceptable to tell a fib to avoid telling a hurtful truth. My parents’ complicity in the “story” intrigued me.
“Wanna come along for the ride, Sallie?” my dad asked.
Eager for an excuse to ride through part of town I rarely got to see, I grabbed a jacket and jumped into the passenger side of the car. As Dad drove, I stared at ramshackled houses, which seemed too inhospitable for people to live in. Sloping front porches, yard litter, and broken window panes gave the houses a desolate look. Yet through the dark late-afternoon of fall, I saw activity through lighted windows—children playing, an old man sitting and staring out, a woman pulling down shades. I waited in the car with the doors locked while my father went into Mrs. X’s house.
When he came out he was smiling and holding a small, newspaper-wrapped packet containing two ducks (which my mother would end up bequeathing to the cleaning lady the following Monday). He handed them to me for safekeeping as we drove back into the brighter neighborhood that was ours. “Mrs. X was so appreciative of the ducks, it almost made the hunting trip worthwhile,” he said.
“They must like duck a lot.”
“When you’re hungry, almost any food tastes good,” he replied and then quickly added, “but duck can be delicious.”
Within the next few days Mrs. X called to thank my mother for sharing “her” ducks, and by January my dad had hired her husband and two of their sons to do our yardwork. I watched them work on our yard from inside the house, fascinated. The boys, who were probably in their late teens, looked filthy. Their father had hardly any teeth. They all blew their noses without handkerchiefs, an astonishing ability in my opinion.
One rainy Saturday morning, my sister and I both were peering at the boys work from our oversized living room window when one of the boys blew his nose in that manner. She and I began to giggle and imitate his disgusting action. With every iteration of the act, it became even funnier. We were howling with glee. Dad walked through the living room and immediately realized what we were doing. He stopped cold and spoke in a firm voice.
“Do not ever make fun of people who are less fortunate than you are. You don’t know what they’ve endured. You have no right to laugh at them,” he told us. That little speech and its accompanying tone of voice—as stern and angry as I had ever heard my dad—took me completely aback, and I stopped laughing immediately.
I was almost thirteen, and the timing was perfect. It was the teachable moment, exactly the right time to really hear what was said. Suddenly I grasped the concept of reserving judgment when we don’t know the circumstances. My father’s admonishment opened up a cavern of insight. I recall my flash of understanding as if it happened yesterday. How blessed I was to live in a big, lovely house and have parents who could provide for me so comfortably, and how I had done nothing to earn my privilege, but had been born into it. Those boys trimming the walkways didn’t choose their parents anymore than I had.
For the first time I grasped how people can be deprived through circumstance and not from fault of their own. It’s embarrassing to think about it now, how much of a life bubble I’d been in for twelve, almost thirteen years. Those grown boys could have been my brothers, and I their sister. I thought about how coincidental it was that their mother cleaned the ducks my Dad had shot, and how they feasted on food my mother didn’t want to prepare. They were grateful for food we scoffed at. From that time forward, I felt a flood of understanding and compassion when the boys worked in the yard and made a point of minding my own business when the family was doing yard work, determined to make my father proud.
Within a few months, those boys and their father were cleaning my father’s bank in the evening, in addition to doing our yard work every other week. But once again, I let a degree of superiority creep into this reality—after all, my father hired their father to do janitorial work. That made my dad really special—he was a kind and generous man who overlooked circumstances and looked, instead, at character. I shared with my friends how I proud I was about my father’s extraordinary generosity, how he was willing to hire anyone who wanted to work. Unlike many grownups I’d been around, my dad could look beyond a first impression to go out of his way to provide opportunities for less fortunate people.
And once again I learned a wonderful life lesson.
“I am not doing anyone a favor, Sallie. The X family works hard in our employ, and I pay them a living wage. We are in each other’s debt,” my father said quietly and privately to me one night at bedtime.
Over the years my dad taught his children many lessons. Big lessons such as the nature of democracy, Malthusian theory, the concepts of infinity and capitalism. Small lessons such as the importance of cutting toenails straight, taking a fish off the hook without tearing its mouth, balancing a checkbook, and locating a framing stud by thumping the wall. He was patient while explaining something to us and excited when we comprehended it. He made sure he knew what term papers we were working on, what classes we were struggling with, and whether we thought our allowances were sufficient. He followed his two children’s progress as though he were our number-one fan. And he was. But admiration does not mean that lessons need not be taught. An occasional reprimand is far more indelible than a constant hug. We are in each other’s debt is a phrase that haunts me.
When I was at Target recently, I watched a grown man impatiently ridicule and berate a store clerk whose apparent lack of education rendered him unable to calculate the proper amount of change required for an off-the-register transaction. Of course, we all have moments when we fail to live up to ideal behavior, but I got to thinking, there at Target, how serendipitous life’s lessons are. I will always be in debt to my father—and a few dead ducks—for awakening my own sense of compassion.
copyright © 2009 Sara J. Glerum