This is Maria’s story. Why she entrusted it to a hapless boy columnist like myself is beyond me. Either way, our story begins in a humble cafeteria, filled with homeless people.
They are all here for the free annual holiday meal. All who enter are given sanitizer, surgical masks, and optional vinyl gloves. Temperatures are taken at the door.
Maria volunteers here. She has been helping serve hot meals all week, and she volunteers here year round. This volunteering tradition started many years ago. It’s a long story.
When she was a kid her late father was an alcoholic. But when Maria hit age 13, he got sober. Her father started attending AA meetings and won his life back. The main thing her father learned from these support group meetings was that (a) each meeting had donuts, which increased your pant size considerably, and (b) helping others is the only thing worth doing with your life.
Oh, how she misses him.
The mess hall is overrun with people who are dressed in raggedy clothing. Some suffer from mental illness, some are addicted, others have breath that is 190 proof.
Maria stands behind the sneeze guard, dressed in facemask and hairnet. She serves them all steaming helpings. She is cheery, fun, and she flirts with the old guys because they get such a kick out of this.
One elderly man smiles at her. “Maria, I wish I were twenty years younger, I’d marry you.”
She throws out a hip and says, “And just what would YOU know about marriage, Mister Dan?”
“Hey, I know a lot. I’ve had three very successful marriages.”
She cackles. She gives him an extra helping of green beans and reminds him to behave.
Another old guy shuffles toward her. He wears a leather hat and a large backpack. His pants have gaping holes, he reeks of ammonia and body odor. She dishes his plate. The man’s eyes become pink and wet when he sees all the free food. He is unable to speak, he can only mumble.
“Happy Thanksgiving, Roger,” says Maria.
Next an old woman presents her plate. She is covered in scabs, she never stops fidgeting, and she wears a faded T-shirt. The woman won’t let the staff wash this filthy shirt because it was a gift from her daughter. Her daughter currently wants nothing to do with her, so this is all she has left.
The lady says, “Where’s your dad this year, Maria? He’s usually back there serving the food.”
Maria’s father has been dead since August, but the poor old woman is caught in a mental time loop and doesn’t remember.
“He’s resting,” says Maria.
“Good man, your dad. Helped me quit drinking. Five or six times.”
Now it’s Maria’s eyes that pinken.
This will be her first Thanksgiving without him. And it has been the worst year ever. Not just because of COVID, but because of everything. The year 2020 has been a bust, and she’s been a wreck.
But these people have it so much worse than she does. That’s what her father would have reminded her. He would have told Maria that many of these people will sleep outside tonight. Some will shelter in camps off the interstate, with American flags flapping from their tentpoles. Some will die from exposure this year. Or from coronavirus. Or alcohol. Or drugs. Or whatever.
This holiday meal could be their final one. This could be the last time a friendly face looks at them—really looks at them—and smiles.
After a few hours of work, Maria takes a break. She unties her apron and leaves the serving line. She joins a young man seated on the sofa in the corner. He is alone, watching the complimentary TV, holding his plate. The kid is missing all his front teeth. This is Brad.
Brad used to be in college before his mental illness got bad. Then his family cut him off because of a drinking problem that was ruining his life. A few years ago, Brad was sleeping behind a gas station one night when few young men decided to take turns beating him. This is how Brad lost his teeth.
“Hi, Brad,” Maria says.
Brad tries to suppress a grin, but fails. “We—We forgot to say grace,” he says, positioning the paper plate on his lap.
Brad has been sober for two years. Maria’s father helped him.
“No, we didn’t forget to say grace. We said it earlier, before you got here. Where were you? You’re never late for food.”
“I was at the Dollar Store.”
“The Dollar Store? Doing what?”
“Well…” Brad digs into his pocket. He removes a small gift-wrapped box with a frilly white ribbon and a notecard attached. The card has her name on it, in sloppy penmanship. She sees this gift and feels a prickling behind her eyes and nose.
“Oh, Brad, you didn’t.”
Maria opens the present. Inside is a tiny ornament. A red plastic heart. And there is a small Band-Aid stuck to this heart. An actual Band-Aid, like the kind you get from drugstores.
The young man points to the ornament. “See? I put the Band-Aid on it because that’s your heart, Miss Maria, and I just wanted you to know that I’m here for you if you need me.”
She covers her mouth.
Although this kid has so little, and has been through so much, he gives so deeply. What would her father have said in a moment like this? He was always so good at this kind of thing. He always knew exactly what to say.
Then it hits her. She takes Brad’s spindly hand in her own. She squeezes it and tells Brad to bow his head while she says grace.
“Dear God,” Maria begins. “No matter what this horrible year holds for us, please grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and give us the wisdom to know the difference.”
“Amen,” says Brad.
“Amen,” says Maria.
Amen, says the boy columnist.
Happy Thanksgiving to us all.