Her family won a raffle.
Well. Sort of.
It happened a long time ago, but the event will never leave the woman’s memory. Not even when she is old and gray, lying in her final bed. There are some moments that stick with a body.
“Ain’t never gonna forget it,” she tells me in a thick Tennessean accent. “None of us will. No way we could.”
She grew up poor. Very poor. Imagine the poorest kid you knew growing up. Now multiply that times a few hundred. That was her.
Her brothers and sisters were bone thin, her parents were as shapely as fence posts. Sometimes the family went whole weekends without eating anything more than cold grits and hambones.
I’ll pause right here. Can you imagine being a child and not having enough nutrition to make it through the day? And yet, currently, there are 13 million American kids living in homes without enough food. Or, to put it like this: One out of every six children will face hunger this year.
“We were pretty much hungry all the time,” she said. “We quit paying much attention to our sour stomachs.”
The ramshackle house sat on the edge of town, sort of leaning sideways. You’ve seen the kind of place I’m talking about. It was the house everyone drove past while shaking their heads in disgust. The word “eyesore” comes to mind.
There was a leak in the bedroom—if you could call it a bedroom. The room was just a couple of mattresses thrown on a pine floor.
There was no running water.
“We had to steal water from our neighbor’s hosepipe.”
The electricity was never on—no heat, no lights. And the kids were usually fighting some kind of seasonal infection from being malnourished.
But one holiday season, that all changed.
“This man came to our house,” she said. “He was driving a little green car, and wearing one of those little white Catholic collars.”
The old man knocked on the door.
The girl’s father answered. Her father’s face and hands were still covered in black soot and coal dust from crawling in a mineshaft.
“Good evening, sir,” said the man in the dog collar. “I’m here to inform you that you have won our holiday raffle.”
Her daddy was not a guy to mince words.
“The hell you talking ‘bout, preacher?”
“A raffle. It’s a contest, sir. And you’re the winner.”
“I didn’t play no contest.”
“Well,” said the rector, nervously turning his hat in his hands. “Someone must’ve submitted your name. But the good news is, you won.”
Her father said nothing.
The girl’s mother butted in. “Tell us what we won, Father!”
Before the rector could even answer, the girl noticed rumbling work trucks pulling into their driveway. The vehicles were outfitted with lumber, tools, workmen, and smiles. On the truck doors were words like “roofing service,” and “plumber.”
In a few minutes there were workmen climbing on the rooftop, pounding nails, swinging nine-pound hammers. There were craftsmen inside the girl’s home, operating loud tools, turning wrenches, filling the world with the scent of fresh paint.
Over the next few weeks, more trucks arrived. There were more carpenters, landscapers, window installers, electricians, flooring crews, and plaster men.
But there was nothing—nothing—half as wonderful as the night the electricity came on.
“Boy, when them lights came on…” the woman said. “You’ll never know how much it meant.”
In an instant the home’s interior was lit up like a Roman candle. The old refrigerator began to hum. An antique television in the other room abruptly came to life. The children applauded. Their mother cried into their father’s denim shirt and said a prayer of thanks.
And then came the food.
Food arrived by the metric ton, carried by cheerful church ladies in pearls and pumps. The smorgasbord might as well have been carried in via wheelbarrows.
There was a turkey, a Virginia ham, sacks of cornmeal, cheeses, breakfast cereals, field peas, cold cuts, and enough Campbell’s soup products to start their own A&P.
“My mom just watched those women bring all that food, and she kept apologizing. She was so embarrassed to be so poor. She kept explaining our situation, and saying she was sorry.”
But the embarrassment didn’t last long. Because on the evening the priest visited their home to see the finished product, he made an offer to the girl’s father.
The man of the cloth sat on the family’s new outdoor swing, hanging from the rafters of the crisply painted porch. There were wax myrtles in the front yard. A new mailbox by the highway.
The girl’s mother served the rector iced tea.
With actual ice.
The priest offered the girl’s father a job as church janitor. And when her father heard the offered salary for the position, he covered his face with his hands.
And so it was, that in a small chapel, somewhere in the Volunteer State, the young woman’s father lived out the majority of his remaining thirty-two years with a good job, earning decent pay. He spent his days repairing broken hinges, busted water heaters, and refinishing scuffed pews.
Even after many, many decades have passed, the humble coal miner’s daughter says she will never forget it.
It was some raffle.