John W. Cowart

Once a few years ago my wife and I sent a food basket to a poor widow and her children.

They never got it.

Yet, that event forever changed our attitude about giving to the poor.

At the time I was digging graves at a local cemetery to support us and our three children while waiting for my first novel to sell. The novel was never published, but I have moved on to better jobs since. And now we have four children.

The cemetery employed 20 or so gravediggers – maintenance caretakers, they called us. Besides taking care of the grounds, we buried from two to ten people each day.

Funerals were mechanical affairs for us. We prepared the gravesite, stood at a discrete distance during the service, closed the grave as soon as the mourners left, then moved on to the next one.

The deaths didn’t touch us – except one.

A young husband and wife, hardly out of their teens,  and their two little boys drove an old clunker to Florida, lured by the state’s low unemployment rate. They rented a house trailer in Jacksonville while looking for work. They didn’t find it.

One day as they nursed their car down the highway, something gave way underneath. The old muffler scraped along the pavement striking a shower of sparks. The husband jacked the car up and crawled under to try to wire pieces together long enough to make it back to the trailer park. The wife and boys watched from beside the road.

Vibration from a passing truck shook the car off the jack.

The falling car squashed the young man’s head between the frame and the pavement.

The truck driver had not seen it happen and kept on moving. The widow and children had to wait over an hour before they could flag down a passing car for help.

The woman and her children were stuck in a strange city with no husband, no father, no family, no friends, no church membership here for support. And, of course, they carried no insurance.

The burial was held in the cemetery’s least expensive section.

The salesman who arranged the funeral served as pastor of a little store-front church as well as selling burial plots. He conducted the graveside service; only the teen-aged widow, the two toddlers, and a crew of us gravediggers attended.

We discovered that the young families plight was compounded by the fact that she was absolutely broke. She didn’t even have anything to feed the children that night.

Fortunately we buried him on a Friday – a payday.

A liquor store down the road customarily cashed our paychecks, so when one of the guys passed the hat for that family, the whole crew chipped in. A pittance really. Minimum wage pay limits generous hearts. But we did what we could.

That night I told my wife, Ginny, about the situation.

“How much did they collect?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Twelve or fifteen dollars, I think”.

“Well, that’ll get them through tonight, but…”

She stopped and pondered the problem.   “Let’s check the cupboard and see what we can spare,” she said. “Do they have a refrigerator? Just in case, we’d better just send imperishables”?

We pulled everything off the kitchen shelves and took inventory. Immediately we ran into problems.

“Here’s a canned ham,” she said, “Should we send that or keep it for Sunday dinner”?

]”Better keep that,” I answered. “But send ‘em these three cans of tuna”.

“You put those back. We’re having tuna casserole tomorrow”.

“Darn,” I said. “That stuff is fit for nothing but cat food”.

“Well, you’d better learn to like it because it’s tomorrow’s casserole. What about coffee? I have an extra pound”.

“You’re not going to give away my coffee, are you”?

“There’s this pack of herbal tea Aunt Hazel sent last Christmas”.

“Good,” I said. “I hate that glop. Look. Here’s two cans of bacon, what about them”?

“They’re for Donald’s scout trip. Pass me the beets and the box of powdered milk”.

We ended up with one box and two grocery bags of stuff and I took it over the pastor’s house so he could deliver it.

Driving back home I recalled the Bible verse where Jesus said for us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked because doing things like that for “the least of these my brethren” counted as service to Christ Himself.

I felt pretty good about that. I had done a good deed. Wow. Jesus must think I’m a really neat guy, I thought.

I told Ginny that the deed was done. And that ended the matter as far as we were concerned – or so we thought.

I’ve heard church folks say that you can’t out give God. “He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord,” they quote. They say that when you give, God will repay you with interest.

That’s not exactly how it worked out for us.

God did pay us back, but without interest. It happened like this:

A few weeks after we sent the food basket our fortunes changed.

Our car broke down.

Our rent went up.

Shoes wore out.

 Bills poured in.

Every thing got hard but me.

I moved to a better paying job, but the period between my last paycheck from the cemetery and the first one from the new place looked ghastly.

Ginny coped gallantly. She met the crisis by feeding us tuna with noodles, tuna and rice, tuna-based potato salad…

We had to pray for our daily bread daily.

We ran out of coffee. We longed for coffee. Steak we could do without, but we craved coffee.

One morning Ginny and I had to wake up early and collect beer cans along the road top turn in at a recycling center to earn enough money to buy breakfast food for the kids before they left for school.

That afternoon Ginny was figuring out how to cook supper for the five of us from a bottle of ketchup, two eggs, and a half-jar of green maraschino cherries – all that we had left in the house.

There was a knock on the door – the cemetery salesman.

“Remember those groceries you gave me for that girl,” he said. “When I took them out there to the trailer, the woman was getting ready to move back to Detroit; her mother wired her money for bus fare home. She couldn’t take that stuff you sent and I’ve been driving around with it in the trunk of my car for weeks now. I was just passing by and thought of it. Come on out to the car and bring it back in”.

Were we glad to see that food!

Sort of…

I mean it was perfectly adequate tuna fish and beets and corned beef and herbal tea. We were thankful as we unpacked the bags… but regret tempered our thanks.

Looking over our boomerang food basket, Ginny said, “Don’t you wish we’d sent her that pound of coffee”/

“Or the canned ham,” I said. “Think of ham with sweet potatoes and apple sauce”.

“Well, here’s the can of applesauce, but we didn’t send the ham”.

“If we’d sent her the bacon, we’d have flavoring for the dried peas”.

“At least, thank God, we sent powdered milk and oatmeal; we’ll have breakfast stuff till payday”.

“If it ever comes,” I said.

It did.

But until then we ate simply but we did eat.

We ate the very same food we had sent to the poor widow.

And as we dined, we teased eachother…

“Wouldn’t it be great if we had sent…” punctuated every meal; “Yes, but I wish we’d sent…” was always the response. The exchange became a family joke.

But we passed through that bad time.

The other night we heard a stewardship speaker quote the Bible verse that says, “Cast thy bread upon the waters; for thou shalt find it after many days”. He applied the verse to people’s giving and God’s repaying.

Ginny and I glanced at each other with a private smile as we tried not to giggle. We think that verse makes sense not only as an investment-type promise from God, but also as a caution – after all, you may get back the very same bread!

Now, whenever we occasionally send a little something to the poor, Ginny always laughs as she makes out the check or packs the bag. “Should we send them ham and coffee this time,” she says.

“Absolutely!” I say. “I can’t get along without my coffee”.


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