49: The Ugly Socks

49: The Ugly Socks

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Less


The Ugly Socks

The test of our progress is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.

~Franklin D. Roosevelt

A couple of years ago, just as I do every winter, I bagged up all the items in my closet that I no longer wore, along with the clothing my sons had outgrown. I issued a call to action to all of my family and friends, asking them to do the same. It is always my hope to re-purpose those things that do nothing more than take up space in our homes, things other people might make better use of. Nothing bothers me more than selfishly squirreling things away, things that we know we will never use or wear, while people in our community go without.

I found an ugly pair of hand-knitted socks in one of the bags donated by a friend. Not to be mean, but they were a dreadful mixture of colored yarn: orange, purple, yellow and blue. I had to decide — garbage or donation? It wasn’t like they were unusable. They were simply unpleasant to look at, surely not something anyone would choose to wear. I imagine they were a homemade gift gone bad.

I put the ugly socks in the garbage, but ten minutes later, I took them back and put them in the donation pile. Later that afternoon, my mother and I drove down to Madison Avenue in downtown Phoenix. Every winter she and I load up my Jeep with our own cast-offs and the donations from friends, and we take them downtown, along with food and water, to distribute to the men and women living on the street. Sometimes I even get my boys involved.

On this particular afternoon, as Mom and I distributed warm clothing and hot food to a small crowd of people outside a local homeless shelter, I reached into the bag and pulled out the last of the donations — the ugly socks. Surreptitiously, I held them in my hand as the crowd of homeless quietly dispersed, each with a grateful smile, a fistful of food and an armload of clothing. Just as I was about to drop the socks back into the empty bag, laughing at myself for even bringing them along for the ride, a teenage boy ambled up to me.

“Can I please have those socks?” he asked, his blue eyes sparkling in the sun.

My eyebrows lifted. I’m ashamed to say it, but I was still a little embarrassed by the donation and disappointed that we hadn’t anything left to give him except for those socks.

“Of course,” I replied, handing him the thick, ugly, hand-knitted socks. As a mother of two strong, healthy boys, I couldn’t help but feel for this kid. He was the youngest I’d seen that day. He could have been my son, no more than nineteen years old or so. He looked as though he had lived a hard life. His clothes were dingy. Clearly, he hadn’t showered in days, but he had the best smile.

“Thank you so much, Ma’am!” he grinned. “These socks remind me of my grandmother. She used to knit stuff like this for me!”

I watched in awe as that young man raced to the sidewalk. You’d think I had given him a brand new car or a million bucks. He sat down on the curb and slipped out of an old, tattered pair of tennis shoes. It was an unusually cold day and I was saddened to see that he had no socks on his feet. My heart broke and my eyes filled with tears as he slipped into those chunky, hand-knitted socks and then back into what was left of his tennis shoes. He stood up, stomped his feet and smiled at me. Bits of the brightly colored yarn poked through the holes in his shoes. It was quite a sight!

“They’re perfect!” he smiled.

And to think that I was going to throw those silly socks away.

Not only were his feet warmed that day, but so was his heart — and mine. Of all the more handsome clothes we distributed that afternoon it was those darn socks that were the biggest hit! They had rekindled the memory of that young man’s grandmother, a woman who must have loved him dearly. How could I have ever been so thoughtless as to think that those socks, as pitiful as they appeared on the surface, didn’t still have a purpose? To this day I think about that young man. I wonder where he is. I even think about those silly socks. As unassuming as they were, they continue to bring me joy. It’s proof that there is happiness in life’s simplest things, and we’ll never know how much until we’ve shared those things with others.

~Natalie June Reilly


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