“Lemon Balm Betty is out in the parking lot again.”
When I think of grief, Lemon Balm Betty surfaces from my memory banks. She ran around the parking lot outside the food pantry as fast as her feet would carry her as she yelled at the top of her lungs “Thurman Greco is a f..king a..hole!”
“I don’t think she’s ever going to smile again.”
Her anger morphed into a smile one day when she brought in an armload of herbs. I put them out in the pantry for shoppers. Shen she saw this, a smile lit up her whole being.
Grief was unavoidable in the pantry. Grief and fear are best friends. Fearful people are uncomfortable and feel hurt in their hearts, clear down to their first chakras.
Grief happens when we realize how vulnerable we are, how insecure we are.
In our past, we sought security. Some of us found it.
But, then, things spun out of control and our lives began again – in the pantry.
Pantry shoppers and volunteers live with grief. No one talks about it but people working and shopping in a pantry lost a lot: love, jobs, family (not to mention the house and everything in it), friends, self-respect, self-love. Grief is an ongoing series of losses. In the pantry, we all just duck our heads and press on.
Hungry people live with the specter of what if.
What if I hadn’t lost my job?
What if I hadn’t come down with cancer?
What if I hadn’t lost my car?
It’s all loss. It’s all change, whether a lost job, the death of a loved one, a lost home.
Loss triggers grief. And, it’s all incredibly lonely.
I occasionally saw people crying in the pantry. And, truth be told, I cried in the pantry a few times as well. Sometimes I cried silently. Once I cried loud, earth shaking tears. I was intensely afraid the pantry would shut down. I knew there was no other place to feed the people.
I don’t remember the exact circumstances which made me so emotional that day. The reason I cried escapes me now because why I cried wasn’t important. More important, the pantry is a safe place for us all or no one would have shed a tear. This safety allowed me to let my guard down for just a moment to cry the tears I needed to cry.
This I do remember: I cried tears for us all in the building that day as numbness wore off. This was grief at work.
Tears are necessary to heal wounds. There were drugs to numb and mask the pain but there were no pills to heal. So…I cried because there were no grief pills at the Village Apothecary.
Grief is a journey confronting, enduring, and resolving loss. A grieving person moves forward never leaving grief behind. The pain, emotional suffering, were a necessary part of the process. We grieved over things lost: people, jobs, hopes, dreams, belief in self, fun.
The trip to the pantry left us all with unfinished business. It was impossible to lose so much and have it go as a clean break. No loss was perfect. While we traveled to the pantry, our lives were full of ups and downs, good and bad moments. We carried both happy and sad memories inside the pantry room. Grief was the new normal. But grief, with all its tears, paved the way for something positive which we experienced when sadness and loss diminished.
Grief attracted spine and joint problems, respiratory problems, irritable bowel syndrome, bronchitis, asthma, pulmonary issues.
Grief needed to be experienced with depth and honesty. Denying grief got no one anywhere. I was honest with myself about the grief I felt for the pantry. If I hadn’t been, I would have lost the pantry to those who didn’t approve of me and the hungry people I fed.
Grief and anger were never far apart. Anger was always there, just below the surface until it yelled.
In the pantry, each of us were trying to figure out who we were at the moment and who we would be in the future. In the middle of the grief, we explored a new reality we found while we each defined who we were in our new surroundings and community.
We tried on new careers and identities in our new lives. As this happened, we saw the past, the present, and the future all at once. This experience allowed us to see newly discovered talents, strengths, gifts.
In this experience, we created new voices. We found courage to overcome fears.
I recognized this new voice whenever I heard “I won’t be coming again. I got a new job and I’m moving on.” When I heard this new voice, I also heard anxiety, struggle, disappointments, and courage. The person was discovering what was going to work and what wouldn’t.
Rita lived in the Saugerties/Palenville area before Hurricane Irene. That storm cost her everything. One day her life was normal and the next day she had nothing. The most anyone could say about Rita was that she was homeless.
A friend we both knew, Lorene, found Rita a worn out pickup somebody couldn’t sell or even give away.
Until I looked closely at it, I didn’t know what color it was. I knew what color the tires were, though: slick and bald.
So, anyway, Rita got the pickup and the key that went with it. She put the key in the ignition, turned it. The motor came to life. It had enough gas to get her to the gas station. Hurrah!
She began her life over by doing anything that anybody needed to have done for $10.00 an hour and lunch. She cleaned out flooded houses and sheds. She hauled trash to the dump. She used her computer skills when she found anybody who needed administrative work done. Her clothes came from Family of Woodstock. She found a room in someone’s house and was finally not sleeping in the pickup.
Whenever she worked over in Woodstock on Wednesday, she took time out to shop at the pantry.
And, I will say this about Rita.
She never once grumbled. She always had a smile on her face. She always acted as if the pantry food was the best she had ever eaten. And never, not even once, did she complain about the ancient jalopy pickup rig she drove around.
As far as I could tell, she never lost hope. Without hope, I don’t think she would ever have made it to the other side – wherever that was.
For my part, I never once asked her how she got the pickup repaired and I never even looked near the inspection sticker. Frankly, I was afraid to ask. I was afraid she would tell me.
Rita was no different from any of the rest of us shopping and volunteering in the pantry. She had to figure out how much of her past she could rebuild. And she had to figure out how much of the past she was simply going to close the door on as she moved into the future after Hurricane Irene. Rita obviously gave up much beyond her material possessions.
She gave up everything she felt stood in the way of her successful future. Quitting was something she couldn’t afford.
She gave up rear vision. Looking back into her past simply didn’t happen to Rita. She gave up bitterness and seeing wrongs. This means she gave a person a second chance, and even a third when they needed it.
She gave up waiting and putting off something because the stars and planets weren’t properly aligned. She gave up criticism. This included herself as well as others.
Rita was the right person in the right place in the right job to unfold her path in front of her. She carried on each day as if she truly believed it was better than yesterday. She walked as if blessings were all around her and all she had to do was open her eyes a little wider.
Each day, every day, she did whatever was necessary to build her life. Rita embraced the future and renounced her past.
She never quit.
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“When we talk cooking and eating, we are talking love, since the entire history of how a family loves – when and how they learned to love – can be told in most kitchens.” – Marion Roach Smith
The first year a person uses a food pantry for primary shopping, Christmas is a holiday gone wrong. After several years, Christmas becomes whatever the household can make of it. The adjustment is, for some, difficult and for others more difficult.
The difficulty lies, mostly, in the ability to get food items considered “traditional” by a household when no money is available to purchase them in a grocery store.
Once, I heard some pantry shoppers talking in the line about holidays past. Their conversation centered around people celebrating by eating too much delicious food and visiting with relatives, friends, neighbors while swapping stories, catching up on the news.
For more and more people living in poverty, this just doesn’t happen. Both households and individuals find themselves unable to finance the expense of the holiday event.
Not only can they not afford the food, more and more people no longer have the table to sit at, the chairs to sit on, and the stove to cook the food. Recipes, pots and pans, china, silverware, crystal are long since gone. Eating without a kitchen is the way of the modern household living on a minimum wage.
With luck, today’s struggling class household will have the gas to get the car to a soup kitchen. Otherwise, it’s going to be a regular day with a meal prepared in a crock pot, or on a hot plate. The economic situation for some is that just to take the day off and still be able to buy groceries the next day is more a goal than anything else.
Realities faced by the hungry pantry shopper weigh on my shoulders every day of the year. This weight keeps me squirreling away food so the pantry shelves can be stocked for celebrations with canned soup, canned gravy, potatoes, stuffing mix, canned green beans, cranberry sauce, chicken broth and all the fruits and vegetables that can be gotten at food drives and the food bank. Storeroom space and a few freezers at the food pantry are essential.
Pantry volunteers have a difficult time just keeping up with the ever increasing client census. Those with a stable shopper base, a large storeroom and connections can begin scrounging in July to set aside food. It’s extremely challenging to get several hundred or a thousand of an item in the summer and store the food until December.
After several years and several holidays, the food gatherer in the household becomes, if time allows, more skilled at scrounging for food in both the pantry and the grocery store. The difficulty lies, mostly, in the ability to get food items considered “traditional” by a household when no money is available to purchase the items in a supermarket.
While distributing food, I mentally predict who’s going to be successful at scrounging and gathering by the sound of the automobile as it’s driven into the parking lot of the pantry. A successful holiday dinner depends on a working automobile, time available between jobs, and the energy to sustain the search.
Transportation challenges, disabilities, and serious illness in the family can defeat all efforts.
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Book Update: “A Healer’s Handbook” has been published and is available on Nook and Kindle! It will be available in the paper version in early January. If you order it now, it will be mailed directly to you upon publication.
More information about this book can be found on Thurmangreco.com.
Publication of “The Unworthy Hungry” is now scheduled for January 2018.
Thank you for your support and your patience. Now that “Healer’s Handbook” has been published, there will be more frequent and regularly published articles on all blogs.