Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Salvation Army and Other Red Buckets

From my earliest memories, the Salvation Army rang their little bells with joyful abandon outside the supermarket next their little red buckets. My mom would take a handful of change from her wallet and dump it just as cheerfully through the little slot. “Thank you and God bless you!” the Salvation soldier would say.

“Thank you, He has,” my mother would respond.

It happened at every red bucket, no matter where we were or how many we had been by that day. If there was a smiling Salvation soldier ringing a bell, we put change in the bucket. If the Salvation soldier wasn’t smiling, Mom made it her mission to get them to smile. My brother asked her why she did it in addition to her donation check every year. She just shrugged and said, “I can’t help it.”

There are other groups that collect donations during the holidays and we didn’t neglect them either. There are the toy donation boxes manned by uniformed servicemen. (Still a favorite, even though now I’m twice their age) and the food drives that would send us right back into the market to buy more canned goods. My mother didn’t use the food bank as an excuse to clean out her canned goods. She’d get them fun stuff alongside the practical stuff. A jar of strawberry jelly was purchased to go with the peanut butter. Canned pumpkin would not be gifted unless a jar of pumpkin pie spice, a box of pie crust mix, and condensed milk was also gifted.

Whether it’s from Nature or Nurture, I am my mother’s daughter. I’m a giver. I can’t pass a red bucket without dumping change in. I can’t clean out my cupboards for cans to donate to the food bank; I have to buy all new cans just for the drive. I can’t wait for the toy drive and those pretty, pretty uniforms. (Drool.)

But my compulsion doesn’t end there.

I decided one day to go to the corner drug store to pick up a few microwave items for lunch. Outside there was a young man with a backpack who asked if I had some change. “I’m almost to my sister’s and I need bus fare,” he explained.

“Where are you headed?” I asked him.

I wasn’t familiar with the town he mentioned, and when he described where it was, I gulped. He still had twenty miles to go. Small change just didn’t sound like it would get him there. “I’m sorry, all I have is this five,” I said, offering him the only cash I had on me.

He didn’t understand at first. I guess he had heard “no” too many times already that day. The light the flashed across his face once he realized I wasn’t saying no; that to me was worth every penny of that five dollar bill. I thought he was going to kiss me. “God bless you,” he said.

“Thank you, He has,” I replied as I watched him bounce like Tigger over to the bus stop.

I’m not perfect. I am deeply flawed. Is that why I’m a compulsive giver? Perhaps. Abraham Lincoln said once, “When I die I want it said of me by those who know me best, that I always plucked a thistle and planted a rose where I thought a rose might grow.” That is the sort of person I strive to be. I cannot singlehandedly end hunger in Africa or stop violence against children. I feel guilty that I cannot trust people enough to invite them into my home. I hate that we still have to lock our doors for fear of thieves and squatters. I hate that I’ve probably been a victim of a scam. If someone asks for my help though, I can’t walk away from him. I listen to what my gut is telling me and I help him the best I can. If that means I don’t get to eat out one night this week, or that I blew my entire shopping for kicks budget so that someone can make it to his sister’s house, I accept those terms. If they’ve lied to me, that’s on their heads, not mine.  It’s my responsibility to make my corner of the world a brighter, better place.

And if all I can do is bring a smile to the Salvation soldier freezing in front of the supermarket tonight, I will still see that as a mission accomplished.

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