For nine months my husband was unemployed. He had gotten out of the military to find the civilian world disinclined to reward his aviation experience with a job. Though most don’t go into the military to get rich, you had a steady paycheck, access to medical care, even base housing.
Returning to our hometown of St. Louis with none of those guarantees, save for a place to live, we moved into an old brick fixer-upper on the south side my father-in-law owned. Built in 1904. it was in various stages of renovation. Not the height in safety for three children ages 5 and under. But beggars can’t be choosers, as they say.
Hubby went on the hunt. He followed every lead, took temporary construction jobs, and when employment failed to materialize, necessity required him to apply for unemployment. With three mouths to feed, I went to the welfare office to apply for food stamps. After sitting through sessions with caseworkers pushing me to leave my husband so I could collect more entitlements, my embarrassment and anger festered.
Groceries left on the doorstep reminded me we were at the mercy of our circumstance. Late notices from the utility companies magnified the loss of control I felt. That Christmas I cried as I wrapped a few used toys in newspaper that I bought for $10 at the Goodwill store. I developed a whopping case of self-pity. All I could see was what we didn’t have and how we were stuck.
Then I met Old Bill.
I first saw him walking down the alley behind the house. Tall and gangly, with slicked backed gray hair and a bit of a stoop, his threadbare clothes hung on him, and he shuffled when he walked. With plenty of homeless in the neighborhood, I figured he was just another vagrant.
Hubby was never one to sit around, so when he wasn’t going to interviews he took it upon himself to rehab the house with the materials available. He started by removing the junk in the backyard. Bill came by each day, and he and Hubby would strike up a conversation. Hubby, like Will Rogers, never met a man he didn’t like.
Bill hit Hubby up for money right away. He had a penchant for liquor, and wasn’t above panhandling to maintain his habit. Hubby refused to help him drown his sorrows, but if he wanted to help him clean up the yard, he’d pay him with lunch.
I’m ashamed to say I didn’t have charitable thoughts the first time Bill walked into my kitchen. They were more in the range of: What the heck does Hubby think he’s doing? Why is he inviting this stinky old bum into my house? Around my kids? What if he has fleas or something? What if he steals something?
Bill bowed to me when Hubby introduced us. Don’t think I’m going to fall for your schtick, buddy. No handouts for you here.
“Do you mind if Bill joins us for lunch? What are we having today?”
Do I mind? Do I mind another mouth to feed when we can barely feed ourselves?
Besides, Hubby already knew the answer to his own question. Bologna sandwiches. We’d been eating them for a while at that point. But knowing that Hubby was generous to a fault, and would never do anything that put us at risk, I trusted his judgment and went along with it.
Bill wasn’t homeless, as it turned out. He lived with his mother in the neighborhood. He never told us where. They survived on disability. He was a veteran, and fought in one of the wars. He never said which one. It didn’t matter, as war is war. Something happened to him there. Alcohol was his escape.
He’d help Hubby with some work, and then come inside to have his bologna sandwich. Even after the work ended, he’d come by. Although he wore the smell of stale beer like cologne, he never came to our house drunk. Bill sat at the table with the kids, bowed his head as they prayed their blessing, and mostly sat in silence, savoring his bologna. When he did talk, he asked the kids about their day. Once in a while he’d share about his life. Some talks were mundane, like how a dog chased him down the alley or how his knees ached. Some were deeper, like his life’s regrets. Or how lucky we were to have each other. His blue eyes filled with tears. We pretended not to notice.
After lunch, Bill wiped his shaky hands on his pants, and those blue eyes would look into mine. “Thank you, ma’am. You make the best sandwiches.” I knew he wasn’t thanking me for the bologna. He was thanking me for letting him feel included and valued. He was thanking us for helping him forget his torment, if only for a while.
I gave Bill bologna sandwiches, but he gave me something, too. He forced me to examine my judgmental ways and gave me the ability to look at my circumstances in a different light. I let my attitude steal my joy. I had a loving husband. Three beautiful, healthy children. Friends and family who cared for us. Shelter and food. Our situation wasn’t ideal, but I didn’t have to let it rule my attitude. I could choose gratitude.
Old Bill was a regular at lunch for about three months. One day he didn’t show. We watched for him shuffling down the alley. We drove through the neighborhood hoping to find him. The kids wondered for a while about their lunch buddy. But as kids do, they live in the moment, and other things got their attention. We never saw Bill again.
Hubby found out about some classes at the local community college that could give him the certification needed to get a job using computers. He borrowed money from his dad and a few weeks after completing them, he got a job at AT&T. Those classes changed the direction of his career aspirations, and he worked his way up to designing databases. Our financial and physical circumstances changed for the better and we moved to Oklahoma.
Circumstances are temporary and change. Attitudes are harder to change, and affect your entire life. Gratitude is a necessary ingredient to living your best life, and I’m thankful I learned that lesson from an old man shuffling down a back alley. I wish I could have thanked him.
Kristin Nador is our blogger of the month for November. She blogs at kristin nador writes anywhere.