The son of some good friends of ours was seriously injured in a skiing accident a few weeks ago. Thankfully, after a harrowing week, he was released from the hospital and is now recuperating at home. Just as I was contemplating what I could do to help, I received an email: “You have been invited to join the meal train…” it began. Perfect! I thought. It offered instructions on how I could sign up to bring the family meals, and listed required quantities and preferences (simple, kid-friendly foods, delivered between 5 and 6 pm). It also included a link to carepages.com for updates on the young man’s condition.
Being the queen of procrastination, I didn’t exactly click on the Meal Train link right away. By the time I got around to it sometime the next day–while weighing the virtues of island pork tenderloin over glazed salmon–82 people had already signed up! I calculated that at that rate, I would be supplying the family’s Memorial Day barbecue, by which point the kid would be able to skateboard down to my house and pick it up himself. I clicked on the scheduled menus and immediately began fantasizing about getting hit by a bus so that I, too, might reap such delectable kindness from friends and neighbors: chicken alfredo, pasta and meatballs, baked haddock, steak and roasted potatoes, chili, cornbread and chicken fajitas…
Irritated at being frozen out of the help effort, I took matters into my own hands: I baked brownies, which I left on their doorstep along with some Mad Libs and People magazines. A few days later, I saw an even bigger opening: I ran into the father, who informed me that he was home alone for a few days with his rapidly healing son. “Why don’t you guys come over for dinner?” I suggested. If I couldn’t get on the Meal Train, I was going to steer that locomotive right up to my front door. They showed up a few hours later, carrying a Caesar salad and some brownies (not the ones I made) lifted right off the rails! So now not only was I not contributing to the Meal Train, I was actually stealing from it. No matter; the train showed no signs of slowing. “That is some seriously good food coming our way,” the father wrote in a thank-you email to the Meal Train organizers, speculating about other injuries he might engineer to “keep it coming.”
It’s hard to imagine how people organized help efforts for ailing neighbors before the internet. Did they post a sign-up sheet on the front door? Set up a telephone chain? These sites make the process painless and incredibly efficient. After a friend of mine suffered a serious car accident two years ago, another friend set up a schedule on a site called “Lotsa Helping Hands,” where people could sign up to assist not only with meals but also with things like laundry and weeding the garden. I know it meant the world to her family, and it helped my friend endure a long and grueling recovery.
As a Jewish mother, I completely understand the impulse to supply food to the suffering (or even to the hale and hearty). It’s a way to provide comfort when circumstances lie beyond your control. Yet there is something cloying about these sites, beyond the use of the word “Lotsa” in the title. Perhaps it’s the public nature of the offerings, but it all feels a tad … competitive: I’m bringing salad and dessert! Well, I’m bringing Lobster Newburg. Stand back: I’ve got caviar and a whole beef tenderloin! I suppose it’s in keeping with the rest of 21st century life: My kid’s playing hockey, lacrosse and soccer! Mine’s taking AP Physics, English and Calculus! It’s hard to keep up with the Meal Train. But of course, if I’d just clicked on the site right away, I’d be feeling helpful and self-satisfied, instead of guilty and useless. And my own family could look forward to a double batch of Island Pork Tenderloin, even without my getting hit by a bus.P.S. Just as I was about to click “Publish,” I received an email from Meal Train, informing me that the friends in question “are doing great on their own and no longer need meals delivered.” No thanks to me, they’ve got enough to last through Memorial Day.