I’m not much of a do-gooder. I don’t readily trust organizations that ask me for money. (Thanks, Father Ritter and Greg Mortenson.) I am as resistant to fad charities as I am to fad books and diets, which is why I refused to watch any of the gazillion ALS ice-bucket-challenge videos posted on Facebook last summer (except the one where the Texan dispenses the ice with his rifle). And I feel no guilt about using those free return-address labels so many organizations optimistically send in pursuit of a donation.
I’ve been only marginally more generous with my time, volunteering mainly when relentlessly harangued (does that still count as volunteering?) or when I genuinely cherish the mission, like reading to little kids.
So I’m not sure what compelled me to respond to the ad I noticed last month seeking drivers for Meals on Wheels, the non-profit that delivers lunch and a look-in to seniors. Certainly, I found the concreteness of the task appealing; driving around the Vermont countryside pushing food on receptive strangers promised to satisfy both the road warrior and the Jewish mother in me. I welcomed the human contact–however forced–as an antidote to the isolation of working at home in rural New England. And perhaps I felt partially shamed by the “Best Citizen I Know” essay my 7th grader recently wrote about her older sister, who earned the title for “working with schools and charities, voting, and trying to give blood.” (Apparently her iron count was too low. “But it’s the thought that counts,” the little suck-up wrote.)
Regardless, in a matter of days I was loading two coolers into my trunk and making my first rounds. Some recipients were waiting expectantly at the kitchen table, knife and fork at the ready; others were reading, playing the piano, or dozing, and took a minute to appear. Most wanted to chat.
Now, I am happy to report, I have 9 new friends! Sure, I have to tell them my name again every week; their average age, I’m guessing, is 84. But mostly they are happy to see me, and very grateful for the little plastic trays of still-warm food I deliver, along with milk and bread. We discuss the weather, the news, their holiday plans, and their health; they ask about my work, my family, and where I buy my clothes. (Not all are familiar with “the Internet.”) Sometimes they need my help in retrieving the mail, moving a heavy pot, or finding the cat. And they love to show me things: pictures of a newborn great-granddaughter, a stack of 90th birthday cards, the coats on sale in the Macy’s catalogue, a fat squirrel feasting at the bird feeder.
They couldn’t possibly look forward to the visits more than I do. Among other things, our lunch dates have done wonders for my ego; one woman actually asked me if I was a college student, confirming my belief that it is utterly impossible to determine the age of anyone older than 12 but younger than you. And they remind me to appreciate my own parents and their remarkably hale health. Best of all, they provide me with every journalist’s dream: a rich supply of stories, encompassing first loves, rewarding jobs, rebellious kids, enduring friendships, exotic travels. To be sure, my new friends have suffered many losses–mobility, hearing, spouses, even children–but they don’t dwell on those. They are too busy bragging about a daughter’s recent promotion, a sweet letter from a grandson, or the gourmet Thanksgiving meal a late husband used to prepare. And suddenly, I find the “holiday season” a little easier to bear.