by Rindy Higgins
Though it was tiring standing on my feet all day, cooking up two kinds of chili and preparing two giant bowls of salad and then standing some more to serve it to 30 people, it was well worth it. In fact, it was about to become far more worth it than I could have known in advance.
I live in what is considered to be a well-off town. Few realize how many people in this well-off town rely on the Gillespie Center in Westport for food, a place to sleep, guidance, and companionship. I had prepared dinner for 35 people; I was looking forward to being of service tonight.
At first I felt somewhat awkward entering the unfamiliar shelter world and figuring out the pattern of how food is served. The medium-sized kitchen was through a closed door near the entry way. We set up in the kitchen and, promptly at 5pm, men and a few women of varying ages and mobility lined up at a pass-through opening to receive bowls of chili and helped themselves to salad and a cheese topping that I had put on a nearby counter. I greeted each as they appeared. Many verbalized a welcome greeting; nearly all expressed gratitude, several came for seconds. Some said the chili was great, some acknowledged with a ‘thumbs up’. Serving a hearty meal was joy enough. Being appreciated was an extra.
But getting out of the kitchen and sitting, eating, and talking with people made my night special. One woman wearing a knitted Red Sox hat was remarking about the Yosemite climb being depicted on the television there and telling me about her long ago days of hiking and doing rock climbing; being a hiker myself, I enjoyed hearing some of her adventures. I asked one gentleman from where his accent heralded and he answered Croatia. I mentioned that I had heard that Croatia is such a beautiful country, great for outdoors enthusiasts. He nodded in agreement but told me that he came here a few years ago because life became too expensive there after it had joined the EU. One man dressed in a tie and white shirt plunked down angrily next to me but, in a few minutes, he smiled and signaled a ‘thumbs up’. A man who was the ‘dishwasher of the night’ explained to my husband Bill that he had been recently divorced; his wife and kids were in the house, but he had nowhere to go so he had come to the shelter.
The person who spoke with me the most was a man with whom I had interacted a few days before when I had come to get the big pots to cook with at home in advance. At that time, he had several library books on his lap; we conversed about how he felt about the book he was currently reading. Thinking about his literary interest and not seeing any books lying around, I brought tonight two copies of a book written by my husband and me that was recently published and had placed them on the coffee table before dinner.
Now sitting next to me, this man asked me why I was doing the dinner. I explained about it being Albert Schweitzer’s birthday anniversary; he said he recalled Schweitzer and he asked me why that would matter to me. So, I told him about my getting involved with the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship because my cousin Mark had worked for Schweitzer in 1959 when he was 19-20 years old. “And then?” he asked. I told him that Mark then headed eastwards into the Congo. “And then?” he repeated, adding that the Congo was in turmoil at that time. So I told him what had happened to my cousin. “That’s worth a book,” he added. I then told him about our book. I mentioned our book talk that will take place at the library across the street in March. He then got the book from off the coffee table and asked Bill to autograph it and then me as well.
I went off to finalize the clean up and as I headed out the door to leave, I turned to look back at the folks in the living room. In addition to others beside whom I quietly shared a meal, I saw: the Croatian man reading our book, the Red Sox hat lady watching a recap of the Yosemite climb, the dishwasher signaling goodbye through the pass-through, and the man with whom I had conversed the most. Waving and smiling with our book in his hands, he called out “Good luck!”
I smiled and waved back. As I closed the door, I felt a warmth, a kinship, and a sense of gratitude for tonight’s opportunity. Then I remembered my cousin Mark’s words in a letter home from Gabon in 1959: “Which of us has thought to be thankful not only for our good chance but for our lack of calamities? Through the lack of these problems, we have yet another, still more important blessing: the opportunity to help others.”