When I and my siblings were children, my mother ran a little grocery store in our neighborhood, a pocket of working class and poor but proud people who lived a couple of miles west of town, beyond the interstate.
You could buy staples there — bread, milk, eggs and butter — as well as cigarettes and beer, which accounted for a significant percentage of the sales.
The store drew children who collected two-cent deposits on soda and beer bottles and then spent it on penny candy or popsicles. One of my early jobs was to clean the glass on the display case where the candy was kept, and it was a never-ending chore. There always seemed to be fresh prints from grubby little fingers and noses pressed against the glass.
In the 1960s, the store played an important role in the neighborhood. My parents were in a unique position to know who needed help among their neighbors and, especially in the case of my mother, would pass the information to the Franciscan nuns who did mission work among the poor.
They also did quiet charity works of their own. The prominent sign that proclaimed “No Credit” was a lie. My mother kept a little journal in which she recorded courtesies extended to elderly or disabled neighbors whose monthly benefits had run out early or to the single parent whose support check had not arrived.
On cold winter nights, it wasn’t uncommon for our phone to ring long after the store had closed. Someone would need five gallons of kerosene to keep his family warm for the night but had no money to pay for it. My father would stoically don jacket and gloves, unlock the pump and fill the can for them. Sometimes, I would be sent to meet the customer and dispense the kerosene. I’m not proud to say I protested at the injustice of being discomfited because someone wasn’t responsible enough to care for his own family. My parents, to their credit, ignored me, and out into the winter night I went.
They also ignored me when I suggested one year that we have Thanksgiving dinner alone — with just our family. My mother laughed at the absurdity of it. “Why would we want to do that?”
We always had guests for Thanksgiving, including an old French woman with snow white hair who wore pearls and spilled hot food on me, an errant cousin or two who made vaguely obscene sounds at the table, and an elderly bachelor who always ate too much and once passed out in his mashed potatoes.
When my mother died, there were a lot of unpaid accounts in her little journal, some of them going back years. The same was true when my father died years later, and I marveled that he, like my mother before him, could have allowed himself to be cheated, swallowing one sob story after another.
But, then the neighborhood spoke up. At his wake, I heard story after story about his generosity, about his kindness, about his making a difference in the lives of many who were without the means to help themselves.
And I was sad that I hardly knew this side of my father, but at the same time proud of this man and his wife who had made me fill kerosene cans on cold winter nights so that a neighbor’s home would be warm.
I’d like to think I inherited some of my parents’ attitude toward quiet charity, and I know I’ve adopted my mother’s take on Thanksgiving, which happens to be my wife’s family tradition as well. There’s always room at our holiday table for one or two more.
Friends told us recently that some years they go out for the holiday and enjoy dinner alone. I told them Beverly and I have talked about doing that too. But even as I said it, I could hear my mother’s voice.
“Why would we want to do that?”
Irv Dean is the Gazette’s city editor. Opinions expressed in his column are his and not necessarily those of the newspaper. Reach him at P.O. Box 1090, Schenectady, N.Y. 12301 or by email to [email protected]