Tag Archives: help

Alexandria Living Magazine – Something Small Is Big Enough

Just a little announcement:

I’m excited to let you know I have an essay appearing in the current issue of Alexandria Living magazine!

It was a thrill to work with the kind folks at the magazine and as an Alexandria, Virginia resident it was especially fun to contribute.

Below is the link to my piece in the online version of Alexandria Living.  Check it out, and if you like, please comment on the magazine website in the space just below the essay. We would love to hear your feedback!

https://alexandrialivingmagazine.com/stuart-perkins-something-small-is-big-enough/

Thanks to all those who’ve asked what I’ve been up to lately. Blogging continues to be great fun and has proven to be an exciting pathway to opportunities like this. As their newest columnist I’ll be writing a piece for each issue of Alexandria Living. Exciting!

Stuart M. Perkins

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Raker Man!

This is a repost of a piece I wrote after vacationing in the Dominican Republic. It’s been a good while since this was posted, but interestingly, two followers asked me about it within the last week or so. Both mentioned how it’s nice to be reminded that a kindness offered to another doesn’t have to be grand to have meaning. Sometimes a small effort can still make a big difference.

Raker Man

The tropical sun was intense, but from the shade we sipped Pina Coladas and stared at the blue Caribbean. A vacation in the Dominican Republic! We staked claim to our favorite cabana and by afternoon were chatting with beachside neighbors. Diane in the next cabana knew a lot about the area and in the balmy breeze we compared notes on favorite restaurants as we enjoyed the beach.

The next hot day while eating lusciously ripe strawberries I caught sight of the trio working in the sun. We’d noticed the daily routine of these three whose job it was, apparently, to clear the beach each day of seaweed washed up during the night. They were a motley band in ragged clothes. Locals in need of work I supposed, and hard work it was. Each day they scoured the beach, raking and hauling debris. An older worker lagged behind. The effort it took to push a loaded wheelbarrow through soft sand slowed him down. He usually raked alone, stopping often to wipe sandy sweat from his face. He has to be thirsty I thought, as I sipped ice-cold coconut water.

On the following morning, just as I devoured a heaping bowl of chilled watermelon, I saw the old raker man diligently working over the beach. Mere yards from chattering sunbathers, clattering dishes filled with tropical delights, and Mimosas clanking toasts to vacations, this old barefoot man in torn pants worked silently. Unnoticed. Head down as he worked, I waited for him to look up.

He looked up. I waved.

Puzzled, he stared at me and returned to his work. He has to be hot I thought, as the waiter served our Pina Coladas.

I took a sip of mine. It tasted like guilt.

“How much do you think he’s paid?” I asked Francisco and nodded towards the raker. Before he could answer I heard a groan from the next cabana.

“Well, don’t you give him money.” Diane yelled. “He’ll get lazy. Anyway he’ll never even thank you.” With that, she told the waiter to hand her a magazine, brush away the sand stuck to her back, and bring lunch to the cabana so she wouldn’t have to get up.

Judging me over her magazine, Diane said nothing.

“That’s hard work he’s doing.” I continued with Francisco.

“Well, don’t tell him.” Diane yelled again. “He’ll whine about having to do it and he’ll never even thank you for noticing.” With that, she told us she was staying on vacation an extra week because she was sick and tired of the rigors of her job.

Staring at me over her vacation calendar, Diane said nothing.

I watched the raker struggle with another load of seaweed. He sometimes tripped and fell as he shoved the heavy load down the beach. The ceviche and slices of fruit the waiter set down in front of me looked nice, but I couldn’t eat them.

Days passed and I continued to wave to the raker each morning. He eventually waved back and towards the end of our vacation he even waved first. I never saw interaction of any kind between him and anyone else on the beach. Was this man invisible?

“Is it ok to give him some money?” I asked Francisco. I’d hesitated to do so, less from Diane’s comments and more for fear I would offend the man.

“It could be a tip. How much would a little cash mean to him?” I continued.

“It would mean the world.” Francisco responded.

Diane yelled to us. “Well, he’ll become a beggar if you give him money. Like I said, he’d never even thank you!”

On the morning of our final day I saw the raker as usual, head down, combing the sand.  I’d still not given him a tip and I was sorry about that. I mentioned my regret to Francisco, but it was our last day on the beach and I had no cash with me.

“I have cash!” Francisco said, and instantly rifled through his bag to see what he might find.

As the raker’s work brought him nearer the cabana, he and I waved. This time Francisco stood too and motioned the man to come over. Clearly perplexed by this new routine the raker slowly left his wheelbarrow and approached us. We quickly realized he spoke absolutely no English but in an awkward conversation consisting at various points of Spanish and then French, we learned he was Haitian and had come to the Dominican Republic in search of work. He was in the middle of a rough and miserable time.

Francisco held cash towards the raker and pointed at me. “He wants to thank you for working so hard to keep the beach clean.”

The raker stared at the cash. I waited for him to smile. Instead, he stepped back and threw his hands over his head. Oh no. We’d insulted him.

He looked back and forth at us, his eyes filling with tears as he stepped forward to shake our hands. He shook our hands for several minutes before even touching the money which he took very slowly from Francisco’s hand. He spoke rapidly the entire time. I don’t know what his mouth said but his face said thank you. He wiped his tears and returned to the wheelbarrow. We sat back down fighting tears of our own.

“Well, now you’ve done it.” Diane yelled over the heaping plate of lobster on her lap. Butter dripped from her chin. “He’ll be back. He’ll be back ten times today begging for more! Did he even say thank you?”

I just shrugged my shoulders at her. I was sure the man was thankful but I had no idea what he said.

With a disapproving look, Diane said nothing.

Francisco and I returned to our Pina Coladas. I sipped mine, a bit tastier now, and watched for the raker. If he did return for more I just hoped Diane wouldn’t notice. It was the end of the day before she got the chance to say she told us so.

“I knew it!” Diane yelled.

I looked in the direction of the half-eaten drumstick she pointed down the beach and saw the raker running towards our cabana.

“He’s going to ask for more and never even say thanks. Not once.” Diane said smugly.

The raker stopped in front of us and leaned down. Knowing he knew no English we waited for him to say something, anything. From the next cabana, Diane waited too.

The raker leaned down so that we were face to face. He was clearly concentrating as his lips slowly began to move. “Thank you.” he said in English.

Before we could respond, he smiled and ran back down the beach.

Diane said nothing.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Raker Man

The tropical sun was intense but from the shade we sipped Pina Coladas and stared at the blue Caribbean. A vacation in the Dominican Republic! We staked claim to a favorite cabana and by afternoon were chatting with beachside neighbors. Diane in the next cabana knew a lot about the area and in the balmy breeze we compared notes on favorite restaurants as we enjoyed the beach.

The next hot day while eating lusciously ripe strawberries I caught sight of the trio working in the sun. We’d noticed the daily routine of these three whose job it was, apparently, to clear the beach each day of seaweed washed up during the night. They were a motley band in ragged clothes. Locals in need of work I supposed, and hard work it was. Each day they scoured the beach, raking and hauling debris. An older worker lagged behind. The effort it took to push a loaded wheelbarrow through soft sand slowed him down. He usually raked alone, stopping often to wipe sandy sweat from his face. He has to be thirsty I thought, as I sipped cold coconut water.

On the following morning, just as I devoured a heaping bowl of chilled watermelon, I saw the old raker man diligently working over the beach. Mere yards from chattering sunbathers, clattering dishes filled with tropical delights, and Mimosas clanking toasts to vacations, this old barefoot man in torn pants worked silently. Unnoticed. Head down as he worked, I waited for him to look up.

He looked up. I waved.

Puzzled, he stared at me and returned to his work. He has to be hot I thought, as the waiter served our Pina Coladas.

I took a sip of mine. It tasted like guilt.

“How much do you think he’s paid?” I asked Francisco and nodded towards the raker. Before he could answer I heard a groan from the next cabana.

“Well, don’t you give him money.” Diane yelled. “He’ll get lazy. Anyway he’ll never even thank you.” With that, she told the waiter to hand her a magazine, brush away the sand stuck to her back, and bring lunch to the cabana so she wouldn’t have to get up.

Judging me over her magazine, Diane said nothing.

“That’s hard work he’s doing.” I continued with Francisco.

“Well, don’t tell him.” Diane yelled again. “He’ll whine about having to do it and he’ll never even thank you for noticing.” With that, she told us she was staying on vacation an extra week because she was sick and tired of the rigors of her job.

Staring at me over her calendar, Diane said nothing.

I watched the raker struggle with another load of seaweed. He sometimes tripped and fell as he shoved the heavy load down the beach. The ceviche and slices of fruit the waiter set down in front of me looked nice, but I couldn’t eat them.

Days passed and I continued to wave to the raker each morning. He eventually waved back and towards the end of our vacation he even waved first. I never saw interaction of any kind between him and anyone else on the beach. Was this man invisible?

“Is it ok to give him some money?” I asked Francisco. I’d hesitated to do so, less from Diane’s comments and more for fear I would offend the man.

“It could be a tip. How much would a little cash mean to him?” I continued.

“It would mean the world.” Francisco responded.

Diane yelled to us. “Well, he’ll become a beggar if you give him money. Like I said, he’d never even thank you!”

On the morning of our final day I saw the raker as usual, head down, combing the sand. For reasons I’m not even sure of I’d still not given him a tip and I was sorry about that. I mentioned my regret to Francisco, but it was our last day on the beach and I had no cash with me.

“I have cash.” Francisco said as he rifled through his bag. Happy, I think, to bring an end to my weeklong obsession on which I’d taken no action!

As the raker’s work brought him nearer the cabana, he and I waved. This time Francisco stood and waved too, then motioned the man to come over. Clearly perplexed by this new routine the raker slowly left his wheelbarrow and approached us. We quickly realized he spoke absolutely no English but in an awkward conversation consisting at various points of Spanish or French, we learned he was Haitian and had come to the Dominican Republic in search of work. He was in the middle of a rough and miserable time.

Francisco held cash towards the raker and pointed at me. “He wants to thank you for working so hard to keep the beach clean.”

The raker stared at the cash and I waited for him to smile. Instead, he stepped back and threw his hands over his head. Oh no. We’d insulted him.

He looked back and forth at us, his eyes filling with tears as he stepped forward to shake our hands. He shook our hands for several minutes before even touching the money which he very slowly took from Francisco’s hand. He spoke rapidly the entire time. I don’t know what his mouth said but his face said thank you. He wiped his tears and returned to the wheelbarrow. We sat back down fighting tears of our own.

“Well, now you’ve done it.” Diane yelled over the heaping plate of lobster on her lap. Butter dripped from her chin. “He’ll be back. He’ll be back ten times today begging for more! Did he even say thank you?”

I just shrugged my shoulders at her. I was sure the man was thankful but I had no idea what he said.

With a disapproving look, Diane said nothing.

Francisco and I returned to our Pina Coladas. I sipped mine, a bit tastier now, and watched for the raker. If he returned I hoped Diane wouldn’t notice. Silly me. Still, it was the end of the day before she got the chance to say she told us so.

“I knew it!” Diane yelled.

I looked in the direction of the half-eaten drumstick she pointed at the beach and saw the raker running towards our cabana.

“He’s going to ask for more and never even say thanks. Not once.” Diane said smugly.

The raker stopped in front of us and leaned down. Knowing he knew no English we waited for him to say something, anything. From the next cabana, Diane waited too.

The raker leaned a bit closer. “Thank you.” he said in English.

Before we could respond, he smiled and ran back down the beach.

Diane said nothing.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Couldn’t Believe It

Tolerant friends listen whenever I tell stories about Nannie, my grandmother. She was a fountain of valuable life lessons and something happens almost daily to remind me of a Nannie-story, so I tell it. Friends are not only tolerant but often ask unprompted questions!

Was she funny?  –  She could be hilarious and she loved to laugh.

She told stories too? –  Oh yes.

True stories? –  I believed everything she said.

You believed everything she said? – Well, there was this one time…

And so I told them about a spring years ago when she said something I didn’t believe:

“I ain’t going down there.” I squinted into the darkness. The dank smell of ancient-ness floated up through cracks in the old wooden door.

“Nannie asked you to.” Vicki said sternly.

Prodded by my older sister’s reminder, I looked down at the uneven cement steps in front of me. They were stained, covered in dead leaves, and a shiny black beetle scurried past my foot as I hesitantly took the first step.

The “basement house”, as we all called it, was Nannie’s cellar. It was more like a half-cellar with an old shed built on top. Nannie canned vegetables every summer and along with her homemade jellies they lined rough-hewn wooden shelves by the dozens in the cellar’s musty depths, just through the old door and to the right.

To the left were the potatoes.

Nannie’s potato field fed her, her children, and grandchildren. We as an extended family worked each year to plant, tend, and later dig the many long rows. Bushels of potatoes brought in from the field were spread out on large wooden racks down in the basement house. Stored there, the potatoes were used as needed by our families over the course of the winter.

By spring most of the potatoes were eaten. Some were still good. Some were shriveled and less appealing. Some were rotten – and only one hideous nastiness exists on earth greater than that of a rotten potato.

A lot of rotten potatoes.

Each spring the old and rotten potatoes had to be cleaned from the bins. This involved gingerly picking up squishy rotted blobs and scraping their runny putrid remains from the shelves. Apparently Nannie had done this by herself for decades and would have carried on the lonely tradition again but for a sudden flash of volunteerism.

Vicki volunteered me.

Nannie casually watered a geranium on the well as she verified. “You wanna clean out the potato bins?” I noticed she grinned. “It ain’t that bad.”

I didn’t believe that.

Vicki chimed in. “See? Nannie wants you to do it.”

I didn’t believe that either.

The smell of a single rotten potato can slap you in the face. The smell of dozens fairly beats you about the head and shoulders. It’s ghastly. Simply passing by the basement house while Nannie cleaned the potato bins smelled as if something down there had died a thousand deaths and she was wrestling with the aftermath. I remembered that as I stood on that first step leading into the cellar.

“Git!” Vicki said, poking me in the back. I turned to look at her one last time before taking another step towards the abyss.

“I’ll be right here the whole time.” she smiled.

I didn’t believe that.

I smelled the rot before I got to the bottom of the steps. The slight breeze created as I opened the old wooden door caused sheets of cobwebs hanging on the walls to float up quickly in the air then drift slowly back into place. It was dark in there. I reached over my head to pull the dusty string attached to the one light bulb in the center of the cellar and noticed the lovely tile mosaic on the ceiling. In the weak light from the dust-covered bulb the tiny tiles seemed to be moving.

They were moving.

Camel crickets by the hundreds coated the ceiling just inches above my head. Their legs and feelers wiggled in slow motion. I let go of the dirty light bulb string and slowly lowered my arm so as not to disturb a single cricket. Camel crickets don’t hop when disturbed, they pop. If one pops it hits another, that one pops, they hit three more, those pop and suddenly it’s cricket chaos.

“Vicki!” I yelled up the steps. “Camel crickets!”

“Don’t bother them and they won’t bother you.” she yelled back.

I didn’t believe that.

Through the fetid fog of potato stench I ducked and moved slowly under the crickets, passed the wall of cobwebs, stepped over several dead bugs, and stood before the potato bins. I was sweating. I stared at the dimly lit mound of potatoes and decomposing mush and realized I had no training in this. Where did I begin?

“Vicki!” I yelled up the stairs. “How am I supposed to do this?”

“Just start scooping them up.” she yelled back.

“With what?” I asked myself out loud. Vicki heard me.

“Nannie just uses her hands.” she yelled down the steps.

I didn’t believe that.

Leaning forward I grabbed what appeared to be a semi-solid piece of potato. It seemed fairly sturdy as I slowly picked it up. Two inches into the air and it still held solid. Three inches into the air and the heinous sack of disgusting noxious potato juice exploded onto my hand and ran down my arm.

I retched.

Shaking my hand in the air in a feeble attempt to rid myself of the sticky foul potato goo, I accidentally flung some of it onto the ceiling. In doing so I disturbed several crickets, they disturbed many more, and those disturbed the rest.

Covered in rotten slime I stood in the center of a popcorn popper filled with crickets. I’d had it.

“I’m coming out!” I yelled up the steps and in two leaps I surfaced. Gasping for fresh air I waited for Vicki to run sympathetically to my aid.

“Nannie’s going to want you to finish that.” Vicki said from the swing under the apple tree.

I didn’t want to believe that.

Vicki and I loved helping Nannie. No matter what chore she asked us to help with we did our best and I had never told Nannie “no”. I thought about that as Nannie walked up, bucket in hand, and looked at me.

“Finished already?” she asked.

“No.” I said.

I explained the overwhelming stench, the beetles in my shoes, the crickets popping, and my nausea. I told her I couldn’t do it and I didn’t know how she ever did it.

“It ain’t that bad.” Nannie said again.

I still didn’t believe it.

“Well, it’s got to be done. Y’all wait here.” Nannie said smiling. Bucket in hand, humming a hymn, she headed towards the basement house and disappeared into the dismal pit.

I sat in the swing by Vicki.

“I just don’t know how Nannie can do that.” I wondered out loud.

“You stink and there’s a cricket stuck to your leg.” Vicki said.

As I plucked the cricket glued to my leg by potato goo, Vicki and I heard Nannie’s muffled voice coming from the basement house.

“Mercy!”

“Goodness!”

“Boy, oh boy!”

“Phew!”

We ran to the steps and peered into the darkness.

“Are you all right down there?” we asked.

“It ain’t that bad.” she called up to us.

We went back to the swing and waited. Soon Nannie appeared with a bucket of potato grossness. She had goo on her hands, it dripped from her arms, she was sweating, and a camel cricket dangled from her hair net by one leg. Still, she smiled.

Vicki and I asked in awe. “How can you do that?”

“I’ve had my hands in many a worse mess than this.” she said. With that, she walked slowly to the field to dump her bucket of rot. She smiled, hummed, and laughed at herself as she plucked the wiggling cricket from her hair net.

I still don’t believe she could have ever had her hands in any mess worse than those vile piles of putrid potatoes but, true to form, Nannie tackled what needed to be done simply because it needed to be done. When I couldn’t finish the job she smiled, took over, and laughed through the same misery that had caused me to give up.

I couldn’t believe that.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Who’s It Gonna Hoight?

“Ah, who’s it gonna hoight? Me, I got enough.”

He wasn’t looking for an answer. His rhetorical question was more of an explanation. Not that he needed one.

The old fellow in a grease-covered uniform had an accent I hadn’t heard since Archie Bunker. I smiled and waved to the sweaty man who seemed very tired.

Evening walks through my neighborhood take me mostly by houses and condos, but a few blocks further along is an industrial area with the usual mix of manufacturers, package delivery services, and even a brewery. On one corner is an auto repair shop. By that time of day the mechanics are rolling in tire displays, hosing down bays, and performing general closing procedures.

For a couple of weeks I’d noticed the Archie Bunker mechanic walking from the repair shop and up a grassy slope toward an overgrown fencerow. The small hill was an effort for him, especially because he carried a plateful of something in each hand. I’d seen him walk up that slope so many times that my curiosity got the better of me. This time I stopped on the street to watch him.

He first lit a cigarette. Holding it in his mouth he made his way to the top of the slope, careful to keep the plates steady on his way up. When he reached the top he stood for a moment to catch his breath. He leaned down towards the overgrown fencerow and in a voice more high-pitched, yet soft, than one could imagine coming from an elderly, oily, mechanic with a cigarette dangling from his lips, he very sweetly called “kitty kitty?”

Instantly, three scrawny kittens rolled from the brush and bounded over one another to get to the plates he had set on the ground. The Archie Bunker mechanic stood up straight, flicked ashes from his cigarette, and in fine falsetto continued to baby-talk the kittens as they inhaled the plates of food.

They were still eating when the mechanic took one last puff of his cigarette, flicked it aside, and stepped carefully back down the slope. He had seen me watching and as he passed by he smiled, nodded his head, and summed up his simple, kind effort in the one rhetorical question.

“Ah, who’s it gonna hoight? Me, I got enough.”

A couple of weeks later I was walking to lunch with a coworker. As she and I passed the front stoop of a small convenience store, an old woman sitting on the step with a styrofoam cup asked if we had any change. My coworker kept walking as I slowed up just a bit. I knew why she kept walking. We’d had conversations about panhandlers. Neither of us had ever given any of them money. She was very adamant on the subject.

I thought, stopped, and took a couple of steps back to the woman on the stoop. I had no cash and the little bit of change in my pocket couldn’t have been more than a dollar, but I dropped it into her cup. She thanked me and I turned to go to lunch.

My coworker didn’t say anything. The shocked look on her face said it all.

I wasn’t looking for an answer. My rhetorical question was more of an explanation. Not that I needed one.

“Ah, who’s it gonna hoight? Me, I got enough.”

Stuart M. Perkins

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Try Writing

“Thousands of people who write believe they are better than thousands of others. They believe they will pen the next great American novel but their writing is dull and full of grammatical errors. Why do they write anything intended to be read by the public? Why do they write?”

I read those lines and was impelled to respond. The blogger’s entire post was arrogant and sarcastic, but those lines were the cherries on top. After I acknowledged that he can post what he likes on his own blog, I then asked if rather than squelch ambitions with a negative message about imperfection, he could instead applaud people for their attempts, for our attempts because I am one of the imperfect. But, we still try.

I don’t necessarily like being serious because, well, it’s not funny. I love a little arrogance and sarcasm as much as anyone, maybe more than anyone, but his post was nasty at its core, humorless and discouraging.

For me, playing with words to form sentences in an attempt to evoke anything from laughter to sadness in a reader is “magical”, and I rarely use that word. Writing is simply another way to make thoughts available to a reader. I don’t believe I will pen the next great American novel, “dull” writing is subjective, and I am certain I end up with grammatical errors in my writing. But, I still try.

I started blogging less than a year ago and up to that point had hardly read one, much less considered writing one. With encouragement from a good friend, I gave it a start. As an adult I’ve never taken a writing class and in high school English I was at best mediocre. So why do I write? Because I want to. That should be answer enough for the judgmental blogger.

When I have thoughts to express, nothing stops the freight train of desire to write them down. I imagine everyone who writes experiences the same at their own levels. If one’s writing could use some pep or have the grammar refined a bit, those things can be remedied. Writers can learn to amp up their styles and they can become more familiar with grammatical rules. Those things can be learned. What can’t be taught is desire. People who need to write come pre-loaded with the desire to try. And so we write.

I sent my comments to the blogger expecting to hear nothing back really. I simply felt the need to counter a little of his discouragement. That freight train of desire to write my response just couldn’t be stopped! In less than an hour he replied. I hesitated for a second to read what he’d written, but the optimist in me thought why not, it could be he’s given some of his overly critical attitude a second thought! I clicked on his response and read the one line from him:

“Your comments contained two grammatical errors.”

He didn’t even tell me what they were!

It didn’t really matter that he’d paid no attention to the point I’d hoped to get across.

But, I tried.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Giving is for the Birds

I read the simple message while driving to work that morning. It was quite a few years ago but I remember the church’s sign: “Give To Others – Sacrifice” was its straightforward directive. As I pondered those words, I noticed another sign at a fast-food place across the street.

“Try Our Blueberry Biscuits”

Those words required no pondering.

I would indeed try them. Having ample time before work, I would even go inside to sit as I enjoyed their flaky goodness. I could smell the biscuits when I walked in to place my order. On a large rack behind the cashier, someone from the kitchen drizzled icing generously over a dozen or so freshly baked blueberry delights. I ordered two.

After all, the sign had clearly indicated plural.

My mouth watered as I sat at a table between a window and a row of potted palms. I spread my blueberry biscuits before me, smelled their warm icing, and heard their plump blueberries call to me. I noticed movement on the other side of the potted palms but excitement over my biscuits kept me from looking up. Just as I was about to pick up the first biscuit, the movement stopped and I heard a woman’s voice.

“Are you Jesus?” she asked.

Not sure I had correctly heard such a question, I wiped the anticipatory biscuit drool from my mouth and waited for a second.

“Are you Jesus?” she asked again.

I turned to see a frowning elderly woman staring through the potted palms. I assumed she might be homeless when I saw her. Her clothes were frayed and wrinkled, and although her hair was pulled neatly back and held in place by a clean red ribbon, she was otherwise very disheveled and dirty. She carried a soiled tote bag on her arm.

“Are you Jesus?” she asked me for the third time. She frowned a bit harder.

I admit that I slid my blueberry biscuits away from her and towards the window on the far side of the table before I responded.

“No Ma’am”. I said. “Definitely not.” I spread an extra concealing napkin over my biscuits.

I thought she might leave once I cleared up that little misidentification, but she lingered quietly by the potted palms. I kept the biscuits covered and willed my salivary glands to cease working. She edged closer to my table. I pushed the biscuits closer to the window.

She sat down across from me.

My biscuits cooled, my mouth watered, and guilt crept over me as I remembered the first message I had read that morning. “Give to Others – Sacrifice”.

Well, great. Why did I have to see the church’s sign just before being shown the door to blueberry deliciousness! Oh well. I removed one biscuit from its hiding place and slid it towards the elderly woman.

“You can have this.” I said.

She said absolutely nothing but took the biscuit, wrapped it tightly in the napkin, and slipped it into her tote bag. She still frowned. Not even the slightest smile.

There. I had “given to others”. I felt better, she had eagerly taken the biscuit, and as soon as she got up I could still enjoy the one I had left. I could smell it there under the napkin.

She didn’t get up.

“You have a good day, Ma’am.” I said, thinking she might move along.

She still didn’t get up. She frowned at the lump under my napkin.

I had already checked my watch several times and knew I had to get to work soon. I just wanted to eat my blueberry biscuit! I had done what the church sign said. I had “given to others”!

Well, the sign had said a little more than that, I thought as the elderly woman frowned persistently.

I uncovered my second biscuit and handed it to her, saying nothing. She took the second as eagerly as the first. She wrapped it quickly, slipped it into her tote bag, and walked to the door to go outside. She frowned all the while.

No matter, I thought. I could simply pick up another biscuit, or two, on my way out.

“We stopped making blueberry biscuits twenty minutes ago.” the cashier said. “No more back there.”

My stomach growled. So did I. One of my biscuits handed to the elderly woman was “giving”. Both of my biscuits handed to her, now that was “sacrifice”! But, she would enjoy them I kept telling myself, as I imagined her biting into the icing covered blueberry treats.

As I headed to my car, I heard their wings flapping before I saw them. Pigeons. So many pigeons flying in that they blocked my view of what attracted them. Then, through an opening in the flock, I saw what they were after.

An elderly woman with a tote bag. She crumbled and tossed piece after piece of blueberry biscuit into the air as pigeons scrambled to eat them.

She was finally smiling.

Stuart M. Perkins

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A Cousin with a Casserole

I washed the last casserole dish and stacked it with others on the kitchen counter. What a genuine kindness each represented and the many meals provided to my family this week sincerely helped ease some distress. Daddy died one week ago today. His heart issues had recently worsened and at almost 81 years old he could handle no more. This past week is a dismal blur and a void that can’t be filled has become brutally obvious. I could write volumes on Daddy and maybe at some point I will. With emotions still so close to the surface I wouldn’t do him justice right now with an attempt.

It was a wee hour of the morning when Daddy died, so friends and extended family didn’t learn of his death until some hours later. As early afternoon arrived, so did the first wave of cousins bringing food. They weren’t asked to, they did so because that’s what you kindly do. They quietly appeared with bags of drinks, casseroles, containers of this or that, and even an entire baked ham. There was no fanfare, just a solemn presentation of the tangible evidence of their caring.  Mama, distraught over Daddy’s death and drained by her own health issues said more than once that she was overwhelmed by the instant show of support.

The number of tasks to attend to following a death saps everyone of everything and attention to meals gets lost in priorities. The gifts of food that flowed into Mama’s kitchen were appreciated more than anyone can know. Each day this past week saw yet another meal supplied by cousins, aunts and uncles, or one of many family friends. It seemed that every person who dropped by to express sympathy did so as they handed us a gift of food. With so many of us staying at Mama’s house, what a blessing that really was!

Often over the years I saw Mama leave the house with food she’d made for other grieving families, but I’m astounded by what I’ve seen come into her house this week. The meals thankfully filled a basic need for our family, but every dish was also a sincere expression of love. We had many things to worry about and still do, of course, but whether we had enough food in the house was never one of them. To come home to waiting meals after talking to the funeral director for hours or spending a long evening at the funeral home was a true comfort.

I would imagine that taking food to a grieving family preoccupied by sorrow and the business of death is probably ages old, all over the world. On a personal level there was something so encouraging about seeing people, many were friends of Daddy’s the rest of us didn’t even personally know, come through the back door with food and condolences. The act of providing meals to a grieving family is such a basic and purely kind way to help.

All who stopped by have their own lives to manage, their own issues to deal with, but they stopped by just the same. Among the many people who so kindly looked out for us I saw elderly women who had difficulty walking but who walked anyway just to bring us a meal. An elderly man Daddy knew for decades brought a cake to Mama. He tried to speak but his crying prevented it so he simply handed her the cake and walked away. Yesterday I saw Daddy’s older brother, arms full, struggling to open the door to the porch. Before I could get there to help he had quietly slipped a watermelon into the extra refrigerator and gone on his way. At the funeral home, a high school friend I hadn’t seen in years handed me a wrapped platter full of brownies as she hugged me. Maybe something extra is communicated when condolences are accompanied by food?

I wish I could properly articulate how much it helped my family to see the parade of familiar faces come through the back door during such a strange, sad week. It was wonderful, beautiful, awesome, and all of those other words we tend to overuse but which in this case are completely appropriate.

During such a stressful, gloomy time, I was reminded that the kindness, caring, and love I have seen my family and friends give to others over the years is still very much there. They rose to this occasion and their generosity and presence this week helped us deal with the sorrow, no question about it.

We never expected more than the “I’m sorry.” which we heard many times, but there was something innately sweet and comfortingly familiar about a tentative tap on the back door followed by a cousin with a casserole.

Whether family or friend, what each person held between two pot holders was more than just supper. It was an extension of their caring, an expression of their love, and a show of support that no one in my family will soon forget.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Filled Need

One summer evening back in 2006 I happened to see a P.B.S. documentary on people living in the Appalachian region of Virginia. My kids, 8 and 10 at the time, had been with me for the weekend and we’d had a great time as usual. After they left, I cleaned and washed a few dishes. The television was on for background noise really. I hated how quiet it was once the kids left.

I started to pay attention to the documentary when someone began to interview an Appalachian couple as they sat on the front porch steps of their tiny frame house. The couple had two kids but little else of any value besides their home. The father worked as a coal miner and handyman while the mother took care of the kids and worked a part-time job at a corner grocery store.

During the interview the couple held hands as they spoke about the hardships of living in such an impoverished area where most people had little education and jobs were scarce. I was struck by the fact that they never complained. Not once. The simply did the best they could and were grateful their good health allowed them to work.

They were serious when they spoke but smiled when asked about their kids. The mother described how much they loved them. The father smiled at first, then his expression changed. This big, burly, tough, coal miner and handyman who lived a rough mountain life began to cry as he spoke about his children. He expressed disappointment in himself because he was unable to give his kids things he knew other children had. At Christmas, he said, it was especially rough. It was hard to tell what he said, he cried so hard as he said it.

I cried with him. To some extent I understood that disappointment. This couple worked as much as possible to keep the kids taken care of and happy. In spite of their efforts, they felt shame and disappointment because in their minds they were letting their kids down. Every empty Christmas was a reminder of that feeling.

At that time, I had very little myself. I have never had much, but that was an especially rough period. Still, as I watched that grown man cry, and not just tear up a little but completely sob because he felt he was letting his kids down, it dawned on me. This was suddenly all pretty simple. I had very little, but he and others in his situation had even less. Surely there was something I could do.

The first call I made was to my friend Mary Dell. I told her what I’d seen, how it made me feel, and asked what she thought of collecting clothes and shoes and once we had enough we could take them all…somewhere. I had no idea where. She immediately agreed. After my call she drummed up donations on her end while I did the same on mine. Friends and family eagerly pitched in. Over the next few months a spare bedroom in my basement began to overflow with bags of clothes and shoes.

As collections grew I began to email various community action programs operating in Virginia counties within the Appalachian region. I also spoke with various social service departments, charitable organizations, and even fire departments, anyone I could find who might know which agency would get the most use out of the things we were quickly stockpiling in my basement. The idea was not to start our own charity, but to feed into established programs that provided help to the people they served.

Amazingly, my calls reached many dead ends. No one was rude or unappreciative, they just didn’t know what to make of my proposition. I simply wanted an address of the office or warehouse used by the program. My friends and I would pack up the hundreds of items we were still collecting and deliver them. I got responses from those I contacted like “We can’t pay you anything.” or “We don’t have it in our budget to reimburse your gas.” I never asked for any of those things. I just wanted to deliver the clothes. Many times I was asked for the name of my organization. People I contacted seemed to have trouble understanding why one individual, hours away across the state, would call with such an offer.

If these program directors felt more comfortable feeling they were dealing with an organization, then I would give my group of friends a name. I decided on “R.E.A.C.T. Virginia” (Reach Every Appalachian Child Today) and registered our group online so that my contact information could be accessed.

After weeks of back and forth with about thirty agencies, I managed to get the attention of the director of a community action program in a county in southwest Virginia. I told her we had hundreds of items, clothing and shoes for men, women, boys, and girls. All sizes. If she would tell me where her office or warehouse was, I would make sure the items were delivered.

She initially responded with comments I’d heard before. “We thank you for your desire to help, we can’t come to Richmond to pick items up, we can’t pay for shipping.” I told her I understood, that friends and I had collected the items and at this point we only needed to be told who needed these things the most and where we could take them. If her agency could use them we had no problem packing it all up and driving the four or five hours to deliver them.

The director’s next email to me was one word. “Why?”

She was baffled as to why anyone from across the state would contact her little program and volunteer to hand deliver such an amount of clothing as I had described. I once again quoted my grandmother, Nannie, to a complete stranger. I repeated the line of hers that I have repeated many times. “When you see a need, fill it.” My friends and I were just trying to fill a need.

Still baffled, she sent me directions to her office warehouse. We agreed upon a date to make the delivery, which happened to fall on my 44th birthday. I couldn’t wait to tell Mary Dell, her son Greg, and her sister Brenda, who had all been instrumental in making this effort work. I was thrilled. Finally I had found people who knew how to make the best use of all we had collected. I walked downstairs and looked at the room full of clothes in bags and boxes.  The room was literally full to the ceiling in the corners. Then it hit me that all of these things would have to be packed onto the truck.

What truck?

Without hesitation, Brenda’s husband Fred offered us the use of his pickup truck. What followed next was a blur of the core group of friends, my sisters, and my mother who arrived with a cooler packed full of sandwiches working like ants over that room full of clothes and shoes. We sorted, sized, folded, bagged, and laughed for hours. Everything was ready to go on the truck in the morning.

When Mary Dell, Brenda, and Greg arrived in the truck early the next morning I remember thinking we probably wouldn’t need so big a truck. I was wrong. Before the packing was done the truck was piled high, rounded over with bags of clothes, a tarp stretched across and lashed with ropes. All we lacked was Granny Clampett in a rocking chair as the cherry on top.

The four of us left for our five hour trip to southwest Virginia unsure of our directions, where we were actually going, or what we would find when we got there.

What we found was a small but effective organization run by kind, caring, and determined people. We drove to the back of the office warehouse and were greeted by a man at the door. When he asked if he could help us with something, I told him my name and who we were. He suddenly disappeared from sight but we could hear him yell to someone inside, “Come quick! R.E.A.C.T. Virginia is here!”

I was embarrassed and suddenly feared that maybe I had overplayed the amount of things we were bringing. What if they were disappointed?

They were not disappointed. There was disbelief in their eyes as they saw the mountain of bags of clothes, contents all clearly labeled. That alone had saved them a lot of work, we learned. It took a while to unload the truck and I stopped counting the number of times we were thanked. With the truck unloaded I looked at my friends, knowing we were all feeling pretty good that we had accomplished what we set out to do. That’s when we were invited inside for a tour of the office.

We went inside and were told in detail how they work, what they do, where the items go, who can receive the donations, and every other detail. We were also told that our delivery couldn’t have come at a better time. There had recently been two house fires in the nearby town and both families had been left with nothing. The timing was perfect.

They thanked us, we thanked them, and we told them we would be on our way since we had to make the return five hour trip. We were told we couldn’t leave until they took our picture. We were escorted outside where we lined up in front of the agency’s sign and had our group photo taken. R.E.A.C.T.Virginia was going to be in the local paper.

After the photos we headed home. It had been a long, satisfying day. My intention was to continue that effort. Maybe a yearly trip to other programs, if not that particular one. Unfortunately, life got in the way a bit. I changed jobs, moved, and the planned effort was basically left behind.

This has been seven years ago now, but just recently I got a phone call from the director of a community action program in North Carolina. She had learned about us from the director of the agency where we had delivered our truckload of clothes – seven years ago. She wondered if R.E.A.C.T. Virginia would consider helping agencies located outside Virginia and if we would, could she talk to me about their particular needs.

I apologized to her and let her know that we had not been active for a few years, but I hoped she would be able to find the help she was looking for. She very pleasantly thanked me. I hung up and since then have pondered how to make it work again.

It all started because I saw a hard working grown man brought to tears when he felt he disappointed his children. Even though I had little, I still had more than that man, and it caused me to remember what Nannie always said. Seeing that sad man sparked the effort, but my friends and family are what made it succeed.

I felt such satisfaction knowing that many, many people benefited from the huge amount of clothes and shoes we were able to provide. There is so much red tape, sometimes, in getting charitable acts accomplished.  The people who needed the things we delivered had no time for red tape. Somewhere a kid needed shoes, and he got them.

That truckload of clothes and shoes we were able to deliver was not the result of years of planning, debating, budget reviews, and demographic mapping. It happened because we saw a need and with the help of our families and others, we helped to fill it. It didn’t take master plans and countless meetings to accomplish.

It was accomplished by four friends and a pickup truck.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Weeding Baby Wendell

I walk nearly every evening, rain or shine. Although the area where I live has sidewalks, ball fields, and open spaces where most people do their walking, I prefer to walk in the cemetery across the street. It’s nearly forty acres of rolling land full of mature trees and all manner of wildlife. It’s filled too, with many, many graves. Towards a back corner, just a few feet from a rusted section of chain link fence choked by honeysuckle, is baby Wendell’s grave.

On my daily walks I began to stop now and then to upright a vase, pull a weed, or pick up trash. I don’t always take the same route so I never focused on any grave in particular, just did what little thing needed to be done if I noticed, and kept walking. It was obvious when family or friends would tidy up around a grave and it became clear that some graves never got attention other than the general maintenance by the owners. No one ever visited baby Wendell. The little granite urn on his tombstone would fill with old leaves, grass clippings, and spider webs. The day I noticed wiregrass smothering his tiny tombstone, I decided to make baby Wendell a routine stop.

My daily walks also meant that the many visitors who came regularly on Sunday afternoons or holidays would see me at one place or another on the grounds. I’d often be mistaken for an employee as they stopped to ask, for instance, where section L was, which gate exits where, or the location of the main office.

One Sunday evening two elderly women, who I later realized had seen me there many times, drove up as I was bent over picking a dead wasp out of baby Wendell’s urn. Not wanting them to think I was up to no good, I stood and walked towards them to say hello. They were all smiles and I was surprised as they began to thank me.

“We see you out here real often. How long have you worked here?” the first woman asked as she adjusted the bouquet of artificial flowers she held in her hand.

The second woman added “Yes, and after that last storm you were the first one we saw out here picking up sticks. It’s just so good that you work here.”

I watched the first woman struggle with her bouquet and said “Oh no Ma’am. I don’t work here, I just walk here.”

As it turned out, they were sisters who had come to put flowers on their brother’s grave. His is located just a few sites over from baby Wendell, between a dogwood tree and a very old azalea.

“But you’re here just about every time we come by.” the first woman said, still fighting to get a grip on the bouquet in her hand, and looking puzzled that I didn’t work there.

“And looks to me like every time we’ve seen you, you’ve been working.” the sister added again.

I explained to them how I might randomly pick up a stick now and then, or put some wind blown trash back in the can, but that they only saw me so often because I had one day noticed the wiregrass that nearly covered the tiny tombstone near their brother’s.

“I’m just weeding baby Wendell.” I said.

“Why? All that and you don’t work here?” the first woman asked as she lost her grip on part of the bouquet.

I’d never given it that much thought. I walk there nearly every day and it was just part of my walk to upright a geranium now and then. I had occasionally remembered what Nannie, my grandmother, used to tell us kids back home. “If you see a need, fill it, and don’t worry about who gets the credit.” she would say.

“Well we can’t thank you enough for all we’ve seen you do.” the first woman said as a tiny piece of her bouquet fell to the ground.

“Oh it’s just wonderful that you would help for no reason.” the sister added.

They both seemed about to tear up as they walked away. I never thought about needing or getting credit for any of the random things I only sporadically did as I walked, but these two women had noticed and they had thanked me. Those tiny efforts took so little on my part, but to them they meant a lot. They noticed and they appreciated.

I suppose we all do the random nice things that we do because we know it’s right, and it’s kind. Baby Wendell could never thank me, and none of us imagine we’ll ever be thanked for the tiny things we do, and we may not believe anyone even notices. But out there for each of us is the equivalent of those two old ladies, noticing and appreciating.

I reached down and picked up the tiny piece of bouquet the woman had dropped as she thanked me. I finished weeding baby Wendell and put those flowers in his little urn.

“No need to thank me baby Wendell. You’re welcome.” I said.

Stuart M. Perkins

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