Charlene

italian-food-cultureThe summer between my junior and senior year in Bible college, I interned at a church in Syracuse, New York. It was my first experience living far from home and I loved it, but this story is not about the summer, it’s merely about one of the characters I met in Syracuse.  Her name was Charlene and she was in her fifties, she was Kathy Bates mixed with Margo Martindale and a dash of Rue McClanahan thrown in for good measure.  She was a member of the congregation and had an infectious laugh and warm heart.  She worked as a caregiver for an elderly woman and she lived in that woman’s home.  Years, later, when I read  Stephen King’s Delores Claiborne, I thought about Charlene and the tales she told me working a similar job.

In the first weeks of my internship, Charlene came up to me at church and told me she wanted to take me to lunch after the service.  She took me to an Italian restaurant and told me to order anything on the menu that I wanted.  She made sure I ordered an appetizer (fried ravioli) and a huge entrée (lasagna) and a dessert (death by chocolate) and even asked me if I wanted to order wine.  “It’s okay if you want some wine, I won’t tell anyone.”  I resisted, though I’ll tell you now, I was a bit tempted.  The reason this meal lingers in my memory was the generosity with which it was offered.  She wanted me to eat like a king.  She told me not to worry about how expensive the meal was, it was something she wanted to do.  

She took me to this Italian restaurant two or three times that summer.  If she had an ulterior motive, it never surfaced.  I believed then and believe even more now, that she just wanted to do something nice for another person.  It wasn’t until years later that I realized what a sacrifice these meals must have been for her.  She did not even have her own apartment, merely a room in her employer’s house.  She did not drive a new car, I don’t think she had a bountiful 401k. Now, of course, I am much closer to Charlene’s age than to the age of the boy, sitting there stuffing his face with fried ravioli.  (It was good.)  I’m certainly not as economically set as I’d like to be and some nights, I lie in bed worrying about my financial future.

A few months later, in December of that year, I had an opportunity to do something nice for someone. In fact the someone in question was Charlene, she had quit her job and moved to Joplin to go to Ozark Christian College. While there were things she liked about the environment, I believe that being a 50-something non-traditional student living in dorms in an ultra conservative part of the country bore its share of challenges. But she was beloved on campus for her wit, kindness, and unfiltered opinions. At Christmas time, she did not have enough money to go home to Syracuse for the break. She couldn’t afford a plane ticket. It so happened, I had a $400 voucher from whatever airline I flew home on in August (I’d been bumped from my flight.) For months, I’d dreamed about how I would use that voucher. The day I talked to Charlene and she told me she wasn’t going home, I must say, it pained me a little when the idea of giving my voucher to her came into my mind. I thought about it for a day or so, and then I decided I’d let her use my voucher. (These were the days when vouchers were transferrable.) I’ll never forget how excited Charlene was when we drove to the airport to buy the ticket. She was so grateful. It’s 25 years later, I still don’t regret my decision. Whatever trip I could have taken would never have had the value that it did for Charlene.

It’s kind of obnoxious that I’m telling you, bragging sort of, about an act of kindness that I committed so long ago. If I was truly humble, I wouldn’t share that part of the story, but the big reason I share the story is, I think generosity does not come naturally for many of us. Or at least it doesn’t come naturally for me. It’s something I have to work on, cultivate.
And yet, if generosity was something that Charlene struggled with, I never saw it.

So, now that I am a drinking man, I can raise my wine glass to toast a wonderful woman. Wherever you are, Charlene, you taught me a lesson in kindness that I will never forget.

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