58: The Trash Guys

58: The Trash Guys

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Amazing Mom

The Trash Guys

Charity begins at home, and justice starts next door.

~Charles Dickens

My mother taught her eight children to be mindful of two important things: First, gratitude, because in reality we had it better than most people. And second, the importance of treating people with dignity. She didn’t talk about these lessons much; instead, she lived them, and we watched and learned.

As a young child, I remember our station wagon packed with clothes and quilts barreling into migrant-worker camps. Before my mother had even turned off the ignition, all the doors were opened and the unloading began. It was almost a waste of time to turn off the car as it was emptied so quickly. There was no conversation as we didn’t speak Spanish. But as we cruised out of sight on the dusty dirt roads, we understood what we heard the workers calling to us: “Gracias! Gracias!”

When the federal Head Start program began, my mom volunteered for years. Then she worked at her church’s food pantry, choosing to take menial tasks rather than being in charge of making the tough decisions about who got food and who didn’t.

As teenagers, we would lobby hard to go to poverty projects around the country or overseas with mission groups to serve people who were suffering and oppressed. Her answer was always a terse, “Charity begins at home.” Then she would mention that Widow Johnson’s lawn needed mowing or suggest some other need right in our community.

One of my most profound memories of my mother’s charity occurred one frightfully hot summer day when my children and I were visiting her. When we got up the first morning, she informed me that none of her grandchildren would be going outside that day as the temperature would be close to 100 degrees. “Grandma rules,” so my kids played quietly inside all day.

After lunch, I was helping Mom clean up the kitchen. She stopped in the center of the kitchen. “I hear them,” she said. “Get out my cut-glass tea set.” I knew better than to argue, as she was obviously on one of her missions. Quickly, she filled the glasses from a plastic pitcher of lemonade in the refrigerator and added ice. Then she filled the matching glass pitcher and arranged everything on the glass tray.

With that, she opened the back door, gesturing to me. “Go! They will be around the corner and at the driveway in less than two minutes.” I was confused, but carrying the tray, I started out the door and onto the asphalt. The heat was oppressive. The thermometer on the side of the house read 105 degrees. I was instantly nauseated, but I made my way to the street. As I got there, a trash truck swung around the. Two guys were in the cab, and two were hanging off the back. They stopped right in front of our trashcan. A wave of awful stench wafted in the air around me. In the moment, I remembered visiting those migrant camps of my childhood.

The trash guys approached me. “My mom told me to bring you something cold to drink because it’s so hot out.” The men didn’t speak at first. I noticed their faces were totally black with grime, and sweat made their bodies glisten like prizefighters. Time seemed to stand still. I was getting woozy from the heat and the attack on my senses.

Finally, one of the men spoke, “Your mother is so good to us.” I noticed then there were little rivers streaming down; lines of white in the grime on their faces. It wasn’t sweat. These men were silently crying. They were all visibly moved. One man was actually trembling with emotion as he stepped forward to take the heavy tray from me. “We can’t stop right now—not until the end of the block for lunch—but we’ll bring this back as soon as we are done.”

I nodded as the men hopped back on their truck after emptying our trashcan. When I got back into the house, Mom was playing quietly with the grandkids. There would be no explanation; there never was. In due time, the trash truck was back, as indicated by a long, blaring horn blast. Outside again in the oppressive heat, I found the trash guys smiling and almost revived. “Tell your mom thanks,” said one of the men as he handed me the glass set. They all waved, and the truck vanished around the corner.

I took the beautiful, fragile glassware back into the house, carefully washed each piece and put it away. It was as if nothing had happened when I finished and closed the china cupboard door.

Later, I would find out from friends and neighbors that my mom was known for her gracious behavior. Although people didn’t always agree with her, they admired her for reaching out to others and giving them dignity.

To her credit, her children quietly reach out to developmentally disabled adults, homeless folks needing a warm breakfast, and mentally challenged children, and work in food ministries just to let others know they are an important part of our planet. My mother never forced her beliefs on people; she just set a great example.

~Pamela Gilsenan

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