26: Through the Looking Glass

26: Through the Looking Glass

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Through the Looking Glass

We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.

~Thornton Wilder

“You have pretty hair.” The woman sitting to my side on the old trailer porch, made of weatherworn wood and surrounded by clutter, squinted up at me.

I touched a few of the stray ends sticking out from beneath a baseball cap. “Oh, thanks. It looks better without the cap.”

She nodded, her own hair graying, and her eyes tired. Fifty-eight. Only eight years older than I, although I might have guessed older.

For the past four days I’d forfeited my usual morning hair ritual. Instead, I woke, combed out the matted mess I’d slept on, and stuck a baseball cap over the top of my head… the only grooming necessary for a day’s labor in the rural coal-mining county where I planned to spend a full week.

Working on homes in Appalachia took me as far away from my comfort zone as I could go. From others who’d done this volunteer work before me, I understood they slept on air mattresses in humid gyms, worked in the scorching summer sun and ate whatever could be provided on the limited budget the organization was able to provide… with no second helpings, either. I heard it wasn’t uncommon to find large spiders or snakes while crawling under a trailer to do plumbing work or some other repair.

Let’s face it, sleeping in anything less than a decent hotel wasn’t really my thing. But that year an urge to experience all these inconveniences wouldn’t go away. And every person who ever went said they’d definitely do it again.

So I went. My group was assigned to fix a trailer that needed aluminum siding and other repairs. The first few days, we worked quietly on our tasks. We installed an underlayment on the house exterior, learned how to use the electric saw, measured and hammered pieces of siding that fit together like a large jigsaw puzzle. The homeowners treated us kindly; they were a couple who suffered from health issues, making it hard to earn a living.

Initially, it was awkward. My cheeks hurt from smiling too much, probably a way to cope with the discomfort of facing another person’s poverty.

Their kindness didn’t go unnoticed. Each day by noon we were all sweating from the humid August heat. The woman would invite us inside to cool down in front of the fan. She offered us cold drinks and snacks, but we always brought our own lunches and left the remaining sandwiches with her.

One day, while we enjoyed our noon cool-down inside the house, I walked over to study some photographs on the hallway wall.

The woman joined me. “Oh, those are my grandkids. And that one,” she pointed to a pretty young woman. “That’s my daughter.”

Her eyes brightened as she shared details. Her parents’ wedding photo. The latest grandchild. A nephew. I followed her back to the living room, her steps slow, her head bent as she stared at the carpet. Before we neared the others, she lifted her head and turned to me. Tears filled her eyes and her voice cracked. “You know, I never believed I’d need the kind of help that you people are bringing me.”

Tears immediately welled in my own eyes and I blinked to stop them. My response stalled, because admitting I saw her struggle didn’t feel right. Finally, I found words that felt right. I put my arm around her shoulders and gave her a hug. “We’re happy to do this.”

Nobody chooses to be poor. Health issues, losing a job, the death of a primary wage earner — any one of these can cause a monumental change in the way someone lives.

Little things I’d noticed all week took on clarity: Broken appliances and rusty chairs belonged in a junkyard, not sitting on someone’s property. Those items remained because it costs money to get rid of them. Overgrown weeds around the house’s exterior and small pieces of discarded trash served as a reminder that being poor is depressing, making it easy to lose interest in maintaining your surroundings.

The day we were scheduled to leave a few of us sat on the porch again, talking with the woman. Being there now felt comfortable, because the people who were once strangers had become friends.

She touched my arm. “What do you use on your skin? It’s so nice.”

“Thanks. I just wash it, put on a little cream.” I rattled off the name of a skin care product, not super expensive in my world, but not plain soap either.

“And your teeth. They’re so nice, too. Straight, white.”

I thanked her, but her words made me think about my appearance. Not a day goes by that I don’t find something wrong when I look in the mirror.

My hair isn’t quite right today.

My face looks fat.

Why are my eyes so puffy?

Is my nose growing as I get older?

The list goes on. But her kind words showed me a blessing I normally don’t see in the midst of complaining. How I’ve had great dental care my entire life, a healthy diet filled with fruits and vegetables, and the use of some fine skin care products. Trips to the beauty shop for a nice haircut every six or seven weeks are well within my household budget, and even money for good hair care products.

Now, when I look in the mirror and feel the urge to complain, I’m reminded of my week sweating in the hot southern sun and the words of a very wise woman who’d fallen on hard times. A week when I got as much as I gave. And, on occasion, I still make the occasional complaint, but I’ll never forget that the view in the looking glass can change depending on where you’re standing.

~Sharon Struth

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