home after withdrawing our Christmas money from the bank, my
mother and I passed what looked like a teenage girl speed-walking
down a street on the west side of Huntington, West Virginia. Her
hair, blonde with dark brown roots, hung to the waist of her
white jacket—hood and hair flew out behind her hunched
shoulders as she walked.
“Did you see that girl?”
I asked my mom.
“Girl? You mean lady. She’s
got to be old as me. Or close, anyway.”
at a traffic light next to a decaying warehouse, and I looked
through our green minivan’s salt-splattered back window and
spotted the petite female powering past the McDonald’s a
couple blocks behind us. From what I could tell, her face did
look a little haggard for her clothing. She reminded me of a
prostitute in tight flared jeans and a puffy nylon jacket my
family had unsuccessfully offered a ride one night in a flea
market parking lot.
My mom drove a few more blocks toward
home before pulling over to the side of the road. We looked at
each other. “Sarah Beth, we’ve got to go back. That
woman looked like she might need help.”
We like to rescue people.
my mother always loved to
rescue people, but I think the urge got stronger in her mid teens
when she donned a heavy wooden cross necklace to show her
newfound faith, a symbol her drinking and smoking relatives
openly mocked. When choosing her major in college, she found the
one she thought would allow her to help people the most—adult
In the late seventies and early eighties, my
mother drove up muddy back roads, paying calls on the needy
inhabitants of the hollers of Wayne County, West Virginia. Alone,
she visited crazy old men guarding shacks with shotguns;
bonnet-wearing women over a hundred years old hauling water from
pumps; trailers so full of stray dogs that my mother, then
pregnant, had to run outside and vomit. Unfortunately, she found
herself spending more time fighting bureaucratic red tape than
meeting the real needs that she saw everyday, and ended up
something of a specialist in putting the reluctant elderly into
nursing homes. She was only too glad to quit work when I was born
and devote her life to raising me and the three others who
But she never quit helping people. Throughout
my childhood, my mom boxed up tiny undershirts, dresses,
sweaters, and short sets, passing on to relatives the clothes
that her latest baby had outgrown. When my mom had another baby,
the relatives gave most of the clothes back and added a few of
The clothes from relatives we were glad to
get, even expected. The clothes were exchanged on a complete
footing of equality. My mom considered helping out relatives more
of a family duty than a charitable act, and when relatives gave
her clothes in return, she felt thankful but not indebted. She
knew the relatives felt the same way.
different were the clothes given to us at church. Perhaps our
fellow church members felt the same Christian burning to help
people that drove my mother into social work. But when they
quenched it by giving black garbage bags of old clothes, even as
a child I wondered if removing clutter from their houses was as
strong a motivation as helping the deserving poor.
I feel it more strongly now than I could as a little girl, those
clothes offended my family. We did not consider ourselves
deserving poor, or poor at all. I can only assume my family was
conspicuous to those with an open heart and an overstuffed
storage room because of the four children, a high number in our
nondenominational Protestant congregation. We must have seemed
likely candidates for a good, soul-satisfying rescue.
bothering to get to know us, our fellow church members assumed my
parents could not afford to clothe their four young children,
overlooking the poorer church families, who included a small clan
on welfare. These charitable souls considered us needy, though we
were always clean, always had something church-worthy to wear,
and always had a vehicle and gas money to get us to church for
all regular and special services. My dad had a good job at a
pharmaceutical company—we weren’t rich, but by no
means did we need the castoff clothes of strangers, offered like
an expired bag of potato chips to a homeless person.
after the bags of clothes, my sister Rebecca visited a friend’s
Nazarene church. “You’ve got four kids in your
family?” exclaimed a middle-aged woman, narrowing her eyes.
“Why, you don’t look poor and dirty!” The
number four still carried a stigma, but at least the woman
actually looked at Rebecca. She did not look poor and dirty.
Multiple families at multiple churches blessed my family with
giveaway bags. The process was nearly always the same. A woman
who wouldn’t talk to my family normally, perhaps the wife
of a deacon or prominent local surgeon, approached my mother
after the service. She poked her head into the nursery where my
mother worked and we kids stayed after children’s church
let out. “I’ve got something for you, honey,”
the woman said. “Could you please move your car over to
where I’m parked?”
After the last parents
finished socializing and picked up their kids, we moved our car.
Then we opened the trunk, an embarrassing step if the bags came
during the years of our old Crown Victoria with flat blue paint.
Originally equipped with the luxury function of a yellow button
in the glove box that opened the trunk from the inside, the Crown
Victoria’s trunk had a broken latch and had to be lashed
shut with red and black bungee cords.
The woman opened
her trunk (with a key or a button on her keyless entry), and she
or her husband took out several black garbage bags, stretched
thin with clothing. She stowed them in our trunk on top of the
orange, red, and blue striped beach towel that the car’s
former owner had used to replace the original carpeting. Then she
said something like, “There’s all sizes. I’m
sure most of it’ll fit you or your girls, soon if not now,
as fast as they’re growing.”
projecting my current feelings into the past, those bags insulted
me as a little girl. However, like a Christmas present, a
mystery-flavored sucker, or anything that I had to unwrap to see
the contents, the bags excited me, too. When we got home, I
helped my mother drag the bags onto the deck. My sisters and I
tore into the plastic, rifling the clothes that spilled over the
wooden planks. There were a few exceptions, but the clothes were
generally in bad shape—out of style, covered in fuzz,
stained, and sometimes reeking of cigarette smoke. Still, every
time someone gave us a fresh load of trash bags, I wondered what
was inside. At the very least, I might get a new limp sundress
for the collection I’d started in the back of my closet
when I first found a purple and a yellow one of the same style in
a giveaway bag. And, since we weren’t rich, and there were
four children to clothe, underneath it all I hoped I’d find
something I’d be proud to wear to church and school.
The road with the McDonald’s was one way,
so my mom turned down a skinny brick street and circled the block
to pass the woman again. We slowed when we spotted her, keeping
pace with her rapid steps. “Roll down the window, Sarah
Beth,” my mom said. I had to yell a few times to get the
“Do you need a ride? We’d
be happy to take you somewhere,” my mom called when the
woman stopped and looked at us. Like the prostitute, the woman
had heavy mascara and crow’s feet around watery blue eyes.
Unlike the prostitute, she got in the minivan.
you. Bless you.” She pointed a cold skinny finger down the
I reached behind the passenger seat to unlock the
sliding door, and the woman got in, sitting behind me on the
middle bench seat. My mom started driving again, and the woman
spoke after catching her breath. “I’m just heading to
the apartments a few blocks from here, but I’m sure
thankful to get out of the cold. Sorry I didn’t notice you
at first. I was so upset I couldn’t see anything but the
road ahead of me.”
Of course my mom had to ask why
the woman was upset. And, like all the grocery store cashiers and
obstetric nurses who had trusted my mother with their life
stories less than a minute after meeting her, the woman told her.
Her landlord, a man named Jake, had promised her extra time to
come up with her three hundred dollar rent payment, but he hadn’t
put it in writing. Now he was demanding the money immediately.
She was on her way to tell Jake she’d just taken on a
second job at the little cigarette place up the road, so she’d
have the money when she got paid the next week. The woman
directed us as she talked, and we turned behind a used car lot
and reached a crowd of green cinderblock buildings on an alley
I’d never noticed before.
“Thank you so much.
It’s good to meet some nice people,” the woman said,
jumping out of the van.
“Wait a second,” my
mom called out, opening our white bank envelope, the one that
bore the inscription “Season’s Greetings” in
red. She showed me the top inch of a twenty, raising her eyebrows
in silent inquiry. Then she shook her head before putting it back
and showing me a one hundred dollar bill. I hesitated—this
represented a significant part of my siblings’ and my
Christmas presents—but then nodded yes.
unbuckled her seatbelt and I cranked down the window on the
passenger side. “Here. Please take this. Maybe it’ll
help tide you over,” my mom said, leaning across me to
stick the bill out the window.
The woman stared at the
money for a moment, her eyes wide, then looked up at my mother.
“Really? Are you sure?”
take it.” The woman stood still for a second, then snatched
the money as if it might melt into the snowy sludge at her feet.
“Then you’ve got to come in!” she
cried. “Please! Just park anyplace. Right there in front of
the building. You’ve got to meet my sister, or I know
she’ll never believe how I got this money. Nothing like
this ever happened to us before. Angels! You’ve got to be
been angels before, though
no one had ever called us that. For several years we’d felt
like the divine-assigned guardians to one big, ever-growing
family at our church.
This family, I’ll call them
the Taylors, lived on disability checks, pizza, and Mountain Dew.
“He can’t get enough liquid gold,” the dad
said, letting his eight-month-old son suckle at a can. The dad, a
person my dad called “the man with the skinny head,”
bowled in a local league in spite of his documented twisted
spine. He was enterprising, though; he tried to increase the
family income by selling drugs. He got caught and traded time in
jail for employment as a nark. When we visited the Taylors, the
stench of overflowing toilets, mildew, and rotting food hit me as
one of the five tiny children opened the door in a diaper and
stained T-shirt. I wondered if this was how the people at church
imagined our home life, “poor and dirty.”
met the Taylor parents and brood in the church nursery, which
somehow led to a stream of urgent phone calls. We helped all we
could. We brought diapers when they ran out and jugs of water
when their water was cut off, comforted the parents when a social
worker took the kids away for a couple months. We brought boxes
of baby and toddler clothes, still in good shape after being
passed down through the four of us kids. To our knowledge, those
children never wore those clothes. We assume the shirts, skirts,
pants, panties, and Underoos found new homes via a consignment
We also brought Christmas presents so many years in
a row that the kids, and the parents, started treating us like
Santa Claus, making requests. One Christmas, the dad dropped a
large box of toys toward my feet, catching it at the last moment
as I handed it through the doorway. “Caught you not paying
attention,” he said. He leaned his greasy bangs toward my
forehead, his grin mischievous, childlike. I backed away quickly
and stood in the driveway while my mother and sisters carried in
the rest of the boxes. It was our last Christmas delivery. A few
months later, the Taylors moved away to be close to the mom’s
brother in Kentucky, and quit calling.
I admit I was glad
to see them go. I think we all were, though my mom occasionally
expressed a sincere, if unhopeful, wish that the family was doing
well in their new home. They’d become a chore and seemed
none the better long-term for our help. Although it is more
blessed to give than receive, a spontaneous act of charity, even
if it carries a high personal cost, brings the highest immediate
blessing. The givers just have to believe the gift is doing the
recipient good—they don’t have to see it. In this
family’s case, the giving became constant, a part time job,
and I started to wish for tangible results.
At least I
expected some gratitude. Late in our relationship with the
Taylors, the mother gave us reason to believe that she, at least,
was thankful. However, the entire family expected handouts like
we had expected baby clothes from relatives, and the kids seemed
to believe that all good things came from charity. When my mother
drove up in the Taylors’ driveway in our new green minivan,
after trading in the Crown Victoria with the bouncing trunk, one
of the little girls put her hand on the bumper. “Who gave
it to you?” she asked.
I’m not sure if other
church members approached the Taylors after church and loaded
trash bags of clothes into the trunk of their old used car. Maybe
not. Giving clothes implied that the recipients were worthy to
wear what the giver had worn—to come after them, one firm
Maybe people did give the Taylors bags of
clothes, but I know some members of our church didn’t help
them. When the Taylors’ water was cut off, my mother called
their deacon—the man responsible for the needs of church
members in that family’s part of Huntington. His response
was annoyance. He knew about that family, but didn’t want
to hear the next event in the sad saga of their lives. It was
inconvenient in terms of time and expense, but my family headed
to Wal-Mart for water.
I can’t remember, but I
wouldn’t be surprised if the deacon’s wife was among
the women who showed up at the nursery, offering us a trunk-load
of clothes. The charitable women probably did notice that we
didn’t look poor and dirty. It was easy, comfortable to
give a bag of old clothes to a family who didn’t need help
and wouldn’t ask for more.
the blonde woman’s
direction, my mom parked the van in what must have been the
tenant parking lot. The pavement was cracked with no painted
lines or concrete markers, and, except for a small red sports
car, it was empty. The woman noticed the sports car and said
nervously, “Oh, good, Jake’s here. I’ll take
you all upstairs, and you can be getting acquainted with my
sister while I’m taking this money to my landlord.” I
looked again at the building’s flaking paint, a tie-dye bed
sheet serving a first-story window as a curtain. I thought of the
Taylors and wondered if I would need to hold my breath inside the
My mom and I followed the woman up a flight of
narrow, concrete stairs built into a recess in the middle of the
building, dark in the middle of the day from the cinderblocks
that hemmed in both sides. “Sorry about all that trash,”
the woman said as I stepped over a molding pillow and half a
dozen beer cans. “Our neighbors never pick up anything.”
She opened the door at the top of the stairs. I didn’t
need to hold my breath. The apartment looked clean but brown.
Brown paneled walls, thin brown carpeting, and two brown folding
chairs lit by a small window and a bare light bulb suspended from
“Jill! I had to bring these women up
to meet you or you’d never believe it. Something wonderful
has happened!” the woman cried. Another woman, thin as her
sister, appeared from an adjoining room. I noticed her clothes
before her face, tight jeans and a red, long-sleeved T-shirt
marked with the logo of a brand I’d seen sold in the junior
girls’ department at JCPenney. When I looked up to answer
her shy “hello,” I was surprised at how young she
looked. Her face was unlined, and her hair was long, light brown,
and straight like mine.
“This is Jill, and this is,
oh I don’t even know your names!” We introduced
ourselves, and the blonde woman told us her name was Claire.
“Jill, look what these people gave us!”
Claire held up the hundred-dollar bill. “I just got me a
new job down at that cigarette place a few blocks from here, and
I was on my way to tell Jake, and—oh! I’d better go
give him the money!” Claire opened the door and disappeared
down the concrete hallway.
“Sit down if you want
to,” Jill said, waving a small hand toward the folding
chairs. “I wish we had something better for you to sit on.
We just moved in here last month, and at our last place they
rented us furniture along with the apartment.”
insisted the chairs were fine and sat down. I wished almost
immediately to stand back up because the way Jill stood, quietly
staring at us in our chairs in that empty room, made me feel
strangely royal. We were relieved when Claire returned.
took the money, and he’s giving us three more days. We’ll
get it somehow,” said Claire. She sighed, looking around
the apartment like it was worth something, her face pink with
happiness and cold.
“Here, you need to sit down
more than I do,” said my mother. She stood up, and I did
“I never sit down. I walk everyplace, and I
never sit down. People wonder how I keep so thin. It’s
because I’m always walking! Jill, I just had to bring them
up here to meet you. They’re angels!”
not angels, believe me,” my mother said, laughing. Jill
“Well,” said Claire, uncertain.
“Here’s a picture of our daddy.” She pointed to
an unframed five-by-seven snapshot stuck to the paneled wall with
a piece of Scotch tape.
“Oh,” said my mom.
“Does he live around here?” I walked over to look
closer at the photograph of the fat man in a chair with a black,
pink, and green afghan tucked around his legs.
died,” piped up Jill. I took a reverent step away from the
“Yes,” Claire said, giving the
picture a loving pat. “We lost our daddy last year. While
he was alive, we never needed anything.”
our mother,” said Jill.
Claire. “We had a beautiful mother. She died a couple of
years before our daddy. I wish I had a picture here to show you.
The girls miss their granny. She knew when we were having a hard
time, and she’d send stuff to the girls—clothes,
shoes, anything they needed.”
like my grandma,” my mom said. “She did things like
that, sent me boxes of clothes, and all in style, too. She knew
my mother didn’t have much money, and since she was an
orphan, and a family adopted her to be their servant, she
understood what it felt like to stick out from the other kids.
Grandma was like another mother to me.”
Jill smiled. “There’s my girls’ bedroom,”
said Claire. She looked at me and motioned toward the room where
Jill was sitting when we arrived. “One’s in high
school, one’s in middle school. My oldest is maybe about
your age.” Through the open door I could see two twin-sized
air mattresses on the floor, half covered by thin purple
comforters. Magazine pictures of male heartthrobs coated the
“You have a beautiful mother,” Claire
said to me, drawing her eyebrows together as if she were
preaching a sermon. “I wish I’d put more value on my
mother when I had her. You cherish that beautiful mother.”
“Thanks,” I said.
my mom said, rolling her eyes, but smiling too.
do have a beautiful
mother. I did back in the giveaway-bag years, too, even if the
women at church often offered to arrange a free makeover. And the
giveaway bags weren’t just for us kids. They also included
clothes for my mother. Most of the family clothing budget went to
my siblings and me, so perhaps sometimes she looked like she
Sometimes the bags were just for my mom, from
people who didn’t have kids, or kids at ages that made
passing on clothes difficult. Once my mom wore a blouse to church
she’d found in one of her exclusive bags. During the
service, she saw the giver looking at the blouse from across the
aisle, a satisfied smile on her face. My mom never wore it again.
Or at least she never wore it again in public. Perhaps she gave
the blouse to Goodwill, but it might have gone the way of a lot
of the clothes in those giveaway bags. We wore them when no one
would see us.
The four of us kids came to depend on those
clothes. We never had to buy clothes for hiking, sledding, or
playing in the woods behind our house. For sledding, there was
always a secondhand coat—perhaps hot pink from the last
decade—no good for church or school, but great for soaking
with melted snow and mud when we crashed into fences or unseen
pits. For hiking, we had jeans, fuzzy flannel shirts, T-shirts
from beaches we’d never visited. And, when we played,
actors in unfilmed, unwatched movies, we had plenty of clothes to
help us get into character—pioneers, farmers, rock stars.
So, perhaps we did appreciate the garbage-bag clothes.
But we didn’t do what I presume some of the givers
imagined—hang their hand-me-downs with the best clothes in
our closets, as treasures that would build our self-esteem.
When we left Claire and Jill’s apartment
and went home, my mom told the story to my dad, sisters, and
brother. Then something struck her—another way we could
help. “Girls,” she said, “I’m sure that
woman’s daughters need clothes. They can’t have much.
It broke my heart seeing how they were trying to make their room
a home. Is there anything you can give them?”
looked through my drawers and closet and found a few shirts and
pairs of pants and jeans. The clothes were still nice, but a
couple years out of style. I’d already passed down most of
the clothes I’d outgrown or no longer wore to my two
sisters. My youngest sister, with no one to pass things down to,
was able to give the most. My mom bagged up the clothes and drove
them back to that small, bare apartment.
returned, she said, “Just that woman we picked up’s
sister was there, but she said she knows the girls will be
excited to go through those bags.” I pictured the girls
opening the bags, as I had done before, hoping to find clothes
that would make them feel a little better about themselves at
school. I felt sick, wondering if I should have given some of the
clothes I actually wore.
I wasn’t the only one to
regret. Years later, my mom still wonders whether she did the
right thing. Should she have paid Claire’s rent, the whole
three hundred? “But I couldn’t. That money was for
you kids. It didn’t belong to me.”
to my mother, sometimes
our acceptance of those bags was an act of kindness to the
givers. We helped by transferring the clothes to the garbage can
in the original black plastic. Sometimes the givers thanked us as
they gave us the bags, happy the precious items they’d worn
when they were young and thin or their children had outgrown
would again see use. A sweater worn in a second grade picture,
that first basketball jersey, a T-shirt that came free with
participation in a meaningful fundraiser, a dress from dates with
an eventual beloved husband, things the owners loved but no
longer wanted to store, and in the eyes of anyone else had no
business outside a landfill.
Some of our relatives have
the same problem, giving us decades-old blouses, threadbare,
yellowed, and frayed. “This has been in my closet for years
just collecting dust,” they’ll say. “I’m
so glad it’ll see some use again!” The relatives with
the worst hoarding and donating problems are the oldest, the ones
who lived through the Great Depression. I remember my PaPa, my
mother’s father, a great hoarder and donator of old,
useless things, lecturing a five-year-old me about the Great
Depression when he caught me using more than three squares of
And PaPa hadn’t gotten worse with
age. When my mother was little, he’d scavenged a rusted
metal dollhouse with dog-chewed people from a neighbor’s
trashcan in a nearby alley. He worked as a railroad engineer and
could have bought her a dollhouse easily, but in his mind it
would have been a crime when there was one to be had for free
almost next door. He also scavenged in his own mother’s
trashcan, rescuing a cracked glass punch bowl (useful as a dry
decoration) and a miniature Nativity scene with chipped resin
My mother’s mother, my Granny, couldn’t
agree with PaPa enough to stay married to him, but they shared
the Great Depression mindset. She did have financial difficulties
after the divorce, making the boxes of clothes from her own
mother for her daughter especially welcome. But, instead of
throwing away the trashy knickknacks her ex-husband had brought
into the house, as I imagine I would do, she kept and used them.
Long after the divorce, the punchbowl graced Granny’s
coffee table, and she put out the Nativity scene every Christmas
until she quit decorating a few years ago. Like PaPa, she carried
her cheapness into old age. She regularly washes and hems
forty-year-old drapes, hanging some in her kitchen and offering
the rest to us like we’d be wasting money to buy new ones.
“Sometimes,” my mom said once, “people
need help throwing things away.”
Claire said goodbye that
day, she promised to repay us as soon as she could. “It’s
a gift,” my mom told her. “You don’t pay back a
gift.” Claire seemed satisfied with that—she
suspected she was entertaining angels, after all.
got to thank you somehow, though,” said Claire. “I
know what I’ll do. As soon as we’ve got the money I’m
going to call and take you all out to dinner. You and all your
girls.” My mom told her it was unnecessary, but when Claire
insisted, she asked Claire to promise not to think of it until
she was so far ahead financially that there wasn’t anything
she could do for her family with that money. Claire agreed, but
insisted she would definitely buy us a dinner. “You can
write that down. You’ll hear from me as soon as I can
afford it. I’ll never forget what you all did for me, my
sister, and my girls.”
Several years have gone by,
and she hasn’t called. I hope she’s forgotten, but I
wonder if that family ever had enough extra money to buy
restaurant food for helpful strangers. I think about Claire and
Jill, maybe married, maybe still single, living together in a
West Huntington apartment, pictures of the now grown girls taped
to the paneled walls. I wonder about the girls, the oldest in her
early twenties by now. I wonder if they wanted to go to college,
and if they were able. I wonder if they live with boyfriends or
husbands in small brown apartments of their own, and if they’ll
end up with kids enough to attract a few garbage bags of clothes
after Sunday service. I hope they’re doing well.
also wonder what happened to the Mountain-Dew-drinking family,
after they moved to Kentucky and didn’t need us anymore, or
found someone else to help. Unlike Claire, the Taylors didn’t
seem surprised by our help, though the mother did wish to show my
mother she was thankful. One year, a little before Christmas,
when we visited the family’s house, the mother reached to a
high shelf in her living room and picked up a clear glass plate,
holding it above her head out of reach of her children and
several newly adopted stray dogs that were running circles around
the living room.
“This is for you,” she said
to my mom, handing her the plate. At first it looked to me like a
dinner plate, then I noticed the etched winter scene and the
words “Merry Christmas” above a year at least two
Christmases past. This woman had been to our house, seen my
mother’s collection of decorative plates on the walls. My
mom felt guilty about it, but she never put the gift up with her
other plates, scenes of children from nursery rhymes.
my mother was thanking the woman for the plate, one of the little
girls, a tiny five-year-old with tangled blonde curls, grabbed my
hand and led me to the stairs. “Look,” she said,
pointing to a pile of dog shit.
“Why do poor
families always think they need to help all the dogs?” my
mom said on the drive home, which led into stories about the dogs
she’d seen and smelled as a social worker. I wonder, too,
why families like the Taylors with barely enough to care for
themselves take in scruffy, homeless animals. People who could
afford to care for stray dogs often ignore them or send them to
the pound, considering them annoyances, as distasteful to deal
with as the Taylor family was to their deacon. Perhaps poor
families take in dogs because they understand what it’s
like to be in need. Or maybe it’s a way in their power of
giving back, of answering their urge to give.