Posted by: Peadar Ban | April 7, 2009

You Will Always Have With You

Like a shadow or a sentinel he stood in the entrance hall, thin, erect, quiet. George approached me and said, “Do you know who that fellow is?” “No,” I answered. “He’s H. S. He used to help me years ago when we gave out the Christmas Baskets with Sr. Leon. He’s a great guy. Now he can’t help because he’s got a hernia.” “Oh,” I answered, helping George but a box full of food for Easter in the back of Peter’s car for delivery to a poor family.

It was the St. Vincent De Paul Society’s and the parishioners small, very small, drop of water to ease their thirst for comfort.

“Why is he here now,” I asked. “He needs help,” George continued. “Gee, I hate to see him standing there. You know he’s a Marine. A vet.” I looked back up the hill to where he stood just inside the open door. He hadn’t moved an inch, twitched a muscle, standing there, with a hernia and God knew what else bothering him, like a fence post.

“Do you think you could figure out some way to get him taken care of early so he doesn’t have to keep standing there?”

I promised George I would and he went off with Peter to deliver food. It was still at least an hour before folks would be showing up to collect their baskets. Inside the church, St Christopher’s, the tables set up in the basement were filling with thousands of dollars worth of food for Easter dinner brought in by the parishioners. Teams of people were checking them off and preparing for the others, the ones we’ll always have with us, their ranks noticeably swelled since Christmas, to arrive.

I walked back up the hill to the door to the basement, and nodded to the fellow as I entered. He returned my nod with a calm, steady look of his own. I felt my measure being taken. “You’re a Marine?” “Third Marine Division,” he answered quietly, straightening imperceptibly.

“Korea? Vietnam?”

“Korea.”

“I’m going to see if we can do something about getting you taken care of sooner. You’ve been standing around here for a while, now, and we won’t start distributing stuff for another hour..”

“That’s OK,” he answered. “I’m fine, but if you can do something I’d appreciate it. I have to be in Boston at 6:00PM.”

I approached my wife, Mariellen, who was more or less in charge of the operation, and asked her if something could be done. She told me that we couldn’t take the risk that word would not get out and we would have people gathering hours before anyone showed up with food to give them. She apologized, and asked me to apologize to H., but that was the way it had to be. “Offer him a cup of coffee and a chair to sit in while he waits.”

On the way back to tell him I grabbed a chair and brought it over to him. “Orders are orders,” I said. He smiled slightly and nodded. “Want a coffee,” I asked. He thanked me and I left to get him a coffee and a pastry. We give them out to folks as they wait in line.

Coming back I squatted down across the hallway from him and told him about my Uncle Henry and his brothers who’d all gone through World War II in Europe. He grunted. I told him about my father-in-law who enlisted as a senior in high school and was the only boy from his class to survive. “I was the only one of twelve who came back. All the other parents were angry with me for coming back.” I told him about the Korean vet I’d interviewed in Ohio a few years ago for a newspaper article, how he taught his buddies how to chew tree bark when they’d run out of food.

“That must have been up near Chosin. That’s where I was captured, became a POW.” “How long,” I asked? “Three years,” he said flatly, matter of factly. “I still get angry when I see Orientals. They made us play Russian roulette and laughed when we blew out our brains,” he continued. We talked for another ten or fifteen minutes about his experience in the camp and after, when he got home. It is a tale for another day. I left him sitting there, but he won’t leave me.

It began to get busy shortly after. I made sure he was the first guy in line to get his food and we nodded to each other as he left. The line stretched into the street. Folks smiled and thanked us, humbled themselves to accept our thanks for being able to help them and left wishing us a Happy Easter.

I remember one old woman coming up the hill, limping, nearly toothless, her hair a mad squall atop her head, shoes untied, shuffling along. I asked her if she needed to sit. “Oh, thank you,” she said, “I’m so tired and sick, and my husband is home sick. My friend is here to help me. I don’t know what to do. I feel so tired. I’m sixty one.” I helped her over to the desk to check her in.

I thought, “She’s six years younger than me and she looks twenty years older.” The phrase “grinding poverty” flashed across my mind.

__________________________________________________________

The afternoon wore on. The tables groaning with boxes and boxes of food and goods emptied, were folded and stored away. The crowd thinned out. It became apparent that some people had not shown up, and may not show up. Mariellen began to phone our “clients”. One of them could not make it because she was at the hospital with a sick child, another had lost her husband only a week before and was too confused and deadened with grief to remember that she had to be at the church on Palm Sunday. Chris and Mike and their families, and Father Kelley loaded their cars and pickups and vans with the boxes for these people and left to deliver them. Nancy stayed a while helping us do the final cleaning. Then it was the two of us, Mariellen and me.

We sat for a while, quiet. “Let’s get these last few things into the car,” she said. There were about four boxes of foodstuffs which we would bring to the Corpus Christi Center on Monday. I loaded the car and we went to a nearby restaurant for a quick, cheap dinner.

“Did you see Mrs. X.,” she asked. “No, I don’t think I did. Remind me who she is.” I’ve had a few conversations with her,” Mariellen said. “She’s the grandmother who is taking care of her son’s children, six of them under six years old, triplets, twins and a little girl, while his wife went over to Europe to be with her son who is in the service.” “Wow,” was all I could say.

“She was beside herself today,” Mariellen said. “She still has the children. Her daughter-in-law is in Germany with her son. She told me this morning that she just found out her son was wounded and will be a cripple. She doesn’t know when they will be back and what will happen when they do come back.”

“God help them. God help her.”

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