My father is nothing if not a creature of habit. Our family kept time by listening for his car leaving the driveway in the morning (time to wake up for school) or coming home from work (6:30 on the dot.) His other activities were equally predictable. On Saturday afternoons, he’d polish his shoes in a white undershirt in front of a ballgame on TV. At 10:15 on Sunday mornings and not a minute later, he’d rattle his keys for us to start loading up for church.
So it is no surprise that his greatest lesson to me involves routine. No, I don’t polish my shoes. And I hardly even go to church anymore. But there are things that he made a regular part of life, without fanfare or lecture or a “this is how it’s done.” The most important, and the one I hold dear, was about helping other people.
Dad was a pretty active member of a pretty little food pantry at our church. Every couple of weeks, he’d load up the Caravan with boxes of macaroni and cans of Spaghettios collected at church and deliver them to apartments at a nearby government housing complex. As a lawyer, he also helped show people how to apply for food stamps and Section 8 vouchers.
He used to take me along. Later in life I realized this was to seem less threatening – and perhaps less threatened – when he visited the apartments, where the doors were almost always answered by women with kids. But he would tell me he needed my help. “I’ve got some errands to run today and some people to see,” he’d say. “I could use a hand.” Never did he say, “Now this is what we do for the less fortunate,” or “I want you to learn from this experience.” He just said he had some regular old things to do. Like polishing shoes, or going to work. And then he thanked me for my help and it was back to our regularly scheduled programming. It was only when I became an adult did I think about the enormity of what he was doing, and how I couldn’t think of anyone else whom I could picture walking into a project apartment and talking with strangers about legal forms. I never wondered if he was scared, and if he was, he never let on.
Today, Dad works with the social ministry at his church. They put on a hot soup lunch for homeless men each winter where they give away coats and other winter necessities. Every year I can tell what season it is when Dad pulls out a couple of giant Crock Pots he bought for this occasion and goes to work making homemade soup for an army of hungry men. And every year, as the stores start bringing in spring clothes and putting coats on clearance, Dad goes to the same shop and buys eight or 10 big heavy coats, the XXL kind that look like sleeping bags, because it’s tough to find clothes for big guys, he says.
If my mother were alive she would flick me if I didn’t mention that she and Dad were like this because of their own history with poverty. They each had half a dozen siblings, give or take a few on each side. My grandmother and some of my dad’s brothers worked at a country club and came home with rolls in their pockets for the others. During the Vietnam draft years, they put powdered milk in my sister’s bottle and figured out how to stretch a can of base exchange, cat-food grade tuna into dinner for the family. Much later in life, after a couple more comfortable decades at the dinner table, my mother wrote a cookbook for us kids. In it, she wrote that years of eating poorly had made them what they are today: generous. “If you see someone on the corner who needs a sandwich, don’t stop to think about your feelings on the matter or to have a political debate with your spouse,” she said. “Open your wallet. Bring him a burger. Write the check to the food pantry.” In essence, stop wasting time and get on with it.
I’m not sure I can live up to my folks’ high but quiet expectations when it comes to dignity and service. I can only hope that dad’s routine will stick with me until I am his age. That my child, whom we’re expecting right around the time Dad pulls out the Crock Pots this year, catches a glimpse of his parents making service a routine part of life. And that someday, he knocks on a door with an offer of help or buys a stranger a sandwich. Not because it is the right thing to do, but because it is the only thing he knows.