Thanksgiving with Pablo

1 Dec
Thanksgiving sack meals

Loading up the Toyota with Thanksgiving meals.

      The man, tall and broad-shouldered, struck me as vaguely familiar. But so crowded was the waiting room, his nod could’ve been intended toward any one of four or five people around me.

      Even after he sidled up at the coffee pot and called me by name, I couldn’t quite recall his. But a man in his profession is used to that.

“I’m your postman,” he said, smiling.

I could have offered two excuses for failing to recognize him. Instead of my apartment building parking lot, we were inside Catholic Charities, waiting for our names to be called to deliver meals. Instead of a uniform, he was dressed casually, Thanksgiving one of the few Thursdays he could choose his own clothes.

“Isn’t this what you do every other day of the week?” I asked.

He smiled.

“Yeah, but this is the one day I’m bringing them something they want,” he said, referring to the meals we were delivering.

“The rest of the time it’s bills.”

Still, what would possess a postman, of all people, to spend a precious off day doing something so close to his day job? Amid the jostling of the crowd, I didn’t get to ask, but whatever his reasons, he’s been doing it for many years.

My reasons were easier to understand. Unlike my postman, I work a sedentary job as a college professor; I often miss my journalism days of driving the streets and making new acquaintances. But delivering meals often falls short in the latter regard: Last year, my first making the Thanksgiving rounds, I didn’t manage a single extended conversation. Either folks didn’t want conversation or already had plenty of it, in the form of Thanksgiving guests. Would this year be the same drill – or would I be lucky enough to have a conversation? Without being intrusive, would I manage to make a connection?

As I unloaded lunches into the trunk of my Toyota, I couldn’t help thinking, yet again, about Sam Wells. Last month I heard the Anglican vicar and community service advocate preach on how being with people tends to be more satisfying than doing things for people; one of his examples of the limitations of doing things for was actually a holiday food drive, in which a person drops off food and/or clothes without connecting to another human being. He argued that on a deeper level, the choice came down to whether we think the biggest human question has to do with mortality (in this case, feeding people) or isolation (in which case the larger value of meal deliveries was the choice to be with them).

Of course, they have to want to be with you.

So even as I strived to open my heart and demeanor to the possibility of a conversation, I was preparing for the chance that it wouldn’t happen. Such a gift, I told myself, was one they must choose to offer.

This particular day, the gift came from a bird.

Specifically, a cockatiel named Pablo.

I spied the yellow-feathered fowl sitting on the sofa, just over the shoulder of the older woman who answered the door. She was living alone and on oxygen, the tubes inserted into her nostrils, but she brightened the way any proud pet owner would when I exclaimed, “Oh, a bird!”

I asked if I could look more closely, explaining that in my office I had a photo of my sister’s cockatoo riding the shoulders of the family dog.

“I have a co-worker who is obsessed with the idea I should have a cockatoo,” I said. “I’m not so sure.”

She smiled. We settled across her coffee table from one another; beside her on the couch, Pablo looked my way, the orange-red round markings on each cheek.

“They told me that Pablo was a male,” she said, in that wry way that told me the opposite would prove to be the case. “Then one day Pablo was rustling around behind a crossword puzzle magazine on the couch, and I moved the magazine to see what he was doing, and there were three eggs!”

I thought about sharing that many years ago at the pound, I thought I was adopting a female dog and signed her up to be spayed, only to then give the hypothetical her a bath in the dog pound sink and find, well, you know.

I decided against it.

Instead, we talked a while longer, some about her having lost her husband and how the old house is hard to heat – but then she noted on my accent, asked where I was from. “So what’s Alabama like?” she asked. I gave her the standard synopsis: Hot summers and warm winters, fried food and barbecue. I said it was easier to get to know strangers – almost more easy than I want it to be nowadays, New England having sold me on the perks of personal space. “When Mom does Meals on Wheels in Tuscaloosa,” I joked, “it tends to take a long time.”

Pablo’s level of engagement in all this was hard to ascertain, but beside her on the couch, my host laughed. In a few minutes of conversation, we’d talked birds and dogs, husband and sister, Massachusetts and Alabama – and in the process I’d been reminded that even so far from home, I was still in tune with an example set by my very Southern and hospitable Mom.

Having been received with such hospitality, the rest of my route unfolded easily enough. At the next stop the recipient had the company of both his loving family members and a gigantic treadmill, which I commented on. “Yeah, it’s great for hanging my clothes,” he joked, and I told him my exercise bike served the same purpose for many years. As with my first stop, the same ease of conversation, the same obvious commonalities between the recipient and me. Two stops that were more brief, then finally, in a fitting conclusion to my rounds, a good doorway talk with a woman in her 90s who, like many her age, has had the strange experience of outliving some of her own children.

She acknowledged the sadness of this, but she carried herself well. Tall and energetic, she was well-dressed, complete with oval lapel pin featuring the face of Jesus. “Life is good,” she asserted, smiling. “Have a Happy Thanksgiving.”

As I drove away, I glanced at my watch. Not even noon. Most Thanksgiving mornings, I would’ve woken up late, done yoga, meditated on concepts of love and grace in the abstract, instead of actually experiencing it concretely with another flesh-and-blood human. The closest I would’ve come would be to call my folks in Alabama, working in hurried exchanges before they got back to preparing meals I wouldn’t be attending, but then I would’ve hung up, feeling a bit of the isolation to which Wells alluded in his sermon.

It turns out that all those times, instead of feeling sorry for myself, I could’ve been driving door to door on a lovely morning, lifted from the doldrums by the grace of volunteers and recipients.

Such is the difference Catholic Charities and other such agencies makes in the Thanksgiving of recipients and volunteers alike.

To which I’ll only add that, well, Christmas is right around the corner. As are our neighbors. Always.

Thanksgiving sack close

“May the blessings of the holiday be with you”: The message Catholic Charities delivers.

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