When I was 11 or 12, my mother decided that it was time the family do more on Thanksgiving than just sit around and shove food in our faces. We'd be spending part of the day volunteering for Meals on Wheels, she told us, delivering Thanksgiving meals to the homebound elderly.
I’m sure there was some whining and complaining on my part, though I don’t remember specifically, but things like this weren’t negotiable in my family. So on Thanksgiving morning, we went to pick up the hot meals and a list of names and address and we were on our way.
It's funny how memory works. I can vaguely remember picking up the meals and what the facility looked like, but the smell of the meals is permanently ingrained in my head. I wish I could say they smelled delicious, that the odor of turkey and stuffing filled the car and then our hearts with the good deed we were doing. But truthfully, I remember them smelling horrible.
As we left the Meals on Wheels kitchen, I just wanted to make the smell go away before it seeped into my pores. Is it weird that at such a young age a meal could smell to me like sadness and near-death?
When we arrived at the first address, my mother pulled over and then told us to go inside.
“Be friendly,” she ordered. “Talk to her. Tell her Happy Thanksgiving.”
“Wait,” I stopped. “You’re not coming with us?”
I don’t remember her reason. Was it because she thought it would be good for my brother and me to do this on our own? Was it because she thought the elderly folks would enjoy seeing children unaccompanied by an adult? Or was it because she couldn’t find parking? The cynical older me leans toward the latter. The younger me just really did not want to deliver these meals without her next to me.
Again, I don’t remember, but I am sure I protested. Why couldn’t she come with us? She assumed I was being my typical bratty self, but it was so much more than that. I was quite shy as a child, something my mother didn’t know about me until I told her a few years ago. She’d always thought that the reason I protested when she asked me to pay the pizza guy or run in and pick up the dry cleaning was because I was trying to be difficult and make her life impossible. The truth is that those interactions were incredibly uncomfortable for me. That I wasn’t sure how to interact with strangers. That paying the pizza guy and asking for change while figuring in the correct tip was truly something that drained me of my energy.
And so of course I didn’t want to go with just my 13-year-old brother to drop off these meals. I didn’t know any old people (we’d moved 3,000 miles away from my grandparents when I was six) and so I truly didn’t know how to interact. What to say. How to be. I needed her there to at least show us the way. To start the conversation.
But she pushed us out of the car, meal in hand, and off we went.
For the most part, it was fine. The first woman lived in an apartment building, I remember, and she had us sit down on the couch and chatted with us a bit. Other people just took their meals, said thank you, and shut the door. But it was the last house of the day that I’ll never forget.
My brother and I walked up the brick stairs and rang the doorbell. No one answered so we rang it again. Finally, we heard shuffling. The person who opened the door was using a walker. Her head was tilting to the side.
“Hi,” I said. “We’re here to deliver your Thanksgiving dinner.” She tried to say something, but instead a line of drool ran out of her mouth and hung in the air.
I didn’t know what to do. What to say. How to give her the meal. Probably one of us walked it inside and put it on the table, but I can’t remember. I just remember her head tilted to the side, her inability to speak. And that line of drool waving in the dense San Francisco fog.
I don’t remember my family’s Thanksgiving dinner that year. Did we eat at home? Go to a friend’s? I can’t recall. Probably my mother and I fought. That was pretty much par for the course at that point in my life. Probably she was resentful that I was a brat while delivering meals, blissfully unaware of what made me behave that way. Likely there were tears, some yelling -- and I imagine it ultimately ended in my getting sent to my room.
But what I do remember -- what I’ll never forget -- is delivering those meals to people who were so old or sick that they couldn’t leave the house to get their own groceries. People whose only human interaction the entire day might have been those few short minutes during which my brother and I visited. People who were alone on Thanksgiving.
I wish I could say that as a result of that experience, I’ll be spending tomorrow delivering dinners for Meals on Wheels. The truth is that I’ll be with my family going on a hike and then eating lobster. (We’re wacky!) But since I can’t volunteer my time, I did the next best thing and wrote them a check. And decorated a menu with colored pencils. I know it’s not the same as being there in person, but I do hope like the idea that I'm helping out somehow.
I realize $186 is not a lot of money to give, so certainly this is not me trying to pat myself on the back for being super awesome. Ultimately, I know I could do so much more for my community to give back and I hope to get there. I need to remember that people need food and care and attention every day of the year, not just on Thanksgiving and Christmas. That there are people with whom a five-minute visit and a hot meal can make all of the difference in the world. Writing a check is good and all, but I think I’d like to do even more.
Do you volunteer during the holidays or year-round? How do you give back to your community? And what are you doing for Thanksgiving? Lobster, anyone?
Oh, and if for some reason this did inspire you to donate to Meals on Wheels, a pretty awesome organization helping to end senior hunger, you can do so here.
Follow me on Twitter @daisy because there’s totally going to be Thanksgiving insanity with my family and I’m definitely going to be live-tweeting it as it happens.