I went to visit my daughter today to the food pantry. It’s my first time ever. It’s twenty-five degrees outside and sunny. We arrive before 9:30 AM, already the line is fairly long leading to the three-bay garage building. My daughter seems to be feeling her way, not really sure how to proceed. Yesterday during our phone conversation she told me, “You sit in the car, drive through and they load everything in your car.” But that’s not really the way it happens.
For a long time we wait in the cold, not really moving, and she has to be at work by 11:00 AM. She rarely calls, so I want to share the morning with her no matter what she’s doing. Regularly, my husband takes food to our small town’s pantry, but I’ve never been there. I don’t go. I don’t offer to work there either, and I could. I really could.
Inside this whale’s belly my daughter and I struggle to speak. These days everything I say makes her feel defensive. I believe she has depression, maybe she dislikes her life and displaced anger is not uncommon. What mother wants to see her child’s arms flailing? It is difficult for both of us.
My eyes are open and looking into the faces of America. The elders are here. Some with their scarves and hats and mittens, and others, like me, dressed wrong for this weather. At the parking lot’s perimeter, there are odd pieces of cast-off furniture: a brown corduroy couch, loveseat, mismatched dressers, and a nice old-lady chair letting the shade sit there first and then the sun. To our left there’s a box of knit caps – in Appalachia, we called them toboggans — for babies. Off to the right, there’s a table of coats with a “one per family” sign printed with a black sharpie on a piece of cardboard. A big swell of odd clothing lies on a picnic table by the shed, and folks constantly look sideways as they pick through it. Milling around there’s a heavyset woman with her little boy in a toboggan with a red-face and camo sweatshirt, which is not nearly warm enough for this morning. A small boy in a tan raincoat carries a pair of white tennis shoes he found on the table to his mother, and there’s a bag of broken glazed donuts being passed down the line. Everyone is welcome to eat as many as they want. It feels like communion. Yes. Our faces shine in the light, and we are, however slowly, making our way to the altar.
My daughter knows she must not miss work. I point to the man who seems to be in charge. I say, “Go tell him you have to go to work, and ask if I can stand for you and get the food.”
All this time she has struggled to think of things to say to me. I’m just sort of numb. Up since 6:00 AM, I’ve already scrubbed floors, started laundry and picked up a house suffering from clutter. She tells me, “Did you hear about the boy on his bicycle at the lake last night? He was hit and killed. They are reopening Natalie Wood’s case after thirty years.” Really? I want to say, but I’m quiet. Why must death always be at the center of our lives? Last week didn’t I go to three funerals? Wasn’t one of them a good friend to my daughter? A good-hearted man with a terrible disease, only forty-five years old and gone
forever. She leaves the line to speak with the man in charge.
“Let’s go Mom; I’m taking you home for a scarf and gloves. You can get your car. He said it’s okay for you to get the food.” I nod and move out of line. In silence we walk to her car.
She tells me, “I’m leaving the apartment unlocked. These are the only keys we have. Here’s a paper you will need to get the food. I love you Mom, and thank you, thanks for doing this.” A sound comes into her voice I have not heard forever, she leans over, and gives me a kiss. “I love you,” she whispers. “Live well,” I answer.
Now, I must remember the way back to the food pantry. I forget one turn and wind up near the railroad tracks. I turn around. When I see the chicken house sign, I know I’m on the right path. But I have lost my place in line. This is the story that keeps happening to all of us, but didn’t I read somewhere the last shall be first? And that white-haired man in his warm green coat, didn’t I hear him tell a tall boy wearing an orange knit hat, “Yes, yes you can stand for your grandma and your mother.” And didn’t that boy grin at me saying, “They had to go to the car. My grandma is old and my Mom has a neurology disease. She has MS. She can’t stand too long.” I saw his grandmother’s pale face under her stocking cap, watched her wobbly gait steadied on the arm of her daughter who is younger than me.
In our long line there’s not one person of color because this is the north end of our county, but I know ten miles down the road people are waiting/wanting/hoping the wind may die down and quit blowing them like leaves. Odd sizes of baby diapers sit under a sign that says, “Please do not take for relatives or friends.” You must think only of yourself. These are the rules for survival. Everyone in line knows the rules, but one package of diapers doesn’t have a size marked. Like a crystal ball, mothers lift it up and try to guess its mystery.
Against the gravel, I stomp and stomp my feet. Without thinking, I am learning this new dance. About twenty people have arrived since I went to get my own car. I check to be sure the paper my daughter gave me is in my pocket. For her scarf and gloves, I am grateful. The newcomers are mostly women. Elderly. White hair, walkers, and canes. Oh Lord, I think, who will carry their food inside when they get home? I step out of line, go to the place where first we started. “Do you remember me? I was just here with my daughter. She had to go to work.”
“Yes, I remember you. You were with the woman in a black coat.” And the tall boy in his orange knit cap nods and smiles.
“Well, would you mind if I step back into line here? I have to get my mother-in-law to physical therapy by noon.”
“Sure. Jump right back in here,” the woman replies.
A first-grade boy swings the bag of broken donuts. He stops in front of us. “Want a donut for a penny?” he asks. His mop of brown hair and grin are contagious. We start laughing. All of us. It ripples up and down our line. “An entrepreneur,” I comment. The woman behind me says, “Yes.” Our laughter and this cold, hurting air starts an old man’s chronic cough. We watch him struggle. We hear his phlegm rattle and somehow it chokes us all.
We are about twelve feet from the white door. A lady in a mauve coat opens it every so often and says, “Three of you may come inside now. Bring your numbers.” I think of heaven. I think of all the people who must wait their turn. People here are not grumpy. Lord, they are pleasant. All these volunteers who have been here for several hours setting this up and the woman with black-rimmed glasses who checks me in with her big ledger, the woman who saw my I don’t know what to do next look and leaned closer to ask me, “Is this your first time?”
“Yes, yes. It’s my first time. I’m here for my daughter. She had to go to work.”
“Tell me her name.”
“Julie. Julie Brown.”
There’s a box with note cards she thumbs. It looks like my recipe box. “Here she is. Now, just find her name in the book. Sign her name with your initials after it. Give me your number.” She sounds like my second grade teacher, and I do just as I’m told.
My number is four. There are four people in my daughter’s family. Two of them are children. “We have another four,” a man yells to his co-workers in the back of this huge unheated garage. And bags of food are placed into a deep plastic wheelbarrow. My number four lies in there too. It feels like I’ve hit the jackpot at a quarter casino machine. A man pushes my wheelbarrow toward the produce. Cabbage, green peppers, onions, acorn squash, apples and ten pounds of potatoes get carefully loaded. Someone hands over a big frozen turkey, a small roast, juice drinks. Another voice tells me to take a jug of laundry detergent. Every voice is cheerful. The wheelbarrow aches under its weight. “Lead the way,” the man smiles at me.
“The tan Chevy, over there,” I say, choking on something I can not name.
His cheeks flush from the cold, and both our bifocals help us to see everything more clearly. Together, we lift and load what has been given into my car. “Have a happy Thanksgiving,” he says. “God bless you, all of you,” I tell him. Our words stir the air like church bells calling us back to something we once knew and must never forget.
Jeanne Bryner is a poet, a former emergency room nurse, and a community affiliate of the Center for Working-Class Studies