It was Thanksgiving, perhaps my favorite holiday of them all, and my house was a warm haven of flickering candles and clinking dishes and ringing laughter. My best friend, Helena, was eating this meal with me and my family for the first time ever, but she became seamlessly stitched into our little world, if only for the few hours that she sat on that chair in our dining room, passing the butter, the green bean casserole, telling us another story of her trip last summer to China. People spoke with gentle amiability as they gave their reactions, shared memories, complimented my mother’s simple, but delicious cooking. I experienced a lovely, magnificent dinner that I swear was straight from a movie, but the truth is that, reflecting back on that day as a whole, I feel only sadness and regret. Allow me to explain.
After we had consumed as much as our stomachs could bear and spoken enough about times when Helena, my sister, and I were in elementary school and engaged in such innocent backyard adventures -- catching lightning bugs, spinning in circles until we fell to the soft earth, kicking our flip-flops over our neighbor’s fence just to act like undercover spies on a dangerous mission -- we filed out of the dining room and into the kitchen to help with the cleaning-up process. But my mother, ever the unselfish soul, shooed us, claiming to not mind such an activity at all. Thus, my dad, Lydia, and Helena migrated next to the T.V. room.
I lingered in the kitchen, however, my mouth agape at how many leftovers we had -- leftovers, meaning little traces of our picturesque gathering only moments before, crumbs and slivers of perfection. This must be shared, I thought, my mind made up, my memory already conjuring images of needy humans I had seen out of the corner of my eye while rushing through the streets of a city with my family, in great detail while at the Metro station awaiting the train, even across from me while studying at the computers of Reston Regional Library. I then remembered that right outside of Herndon Fortnightly Library always sat a man, alone and homeless. I resolved to to bring him food -- turkey, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, apple pie, pumpkin pie -- and explained this resolution to my mother who had been looking at me strangely as I put heaping serving after heaping serving onto several plates and then covered these plates with tin foil.
After slipping soundlessly out the kitchen, out the front door, and to my car, I drove the ten minutes to downtown Herndon with classical music on in the background, feeling pleased with my decision to have a moment of benevolence, of being a do-gooder. I parked my car on the eerily serene and empty street in front of this brick palace of books and more books and made my way over to the sheltered area, my hands full with the plates of Thanksgiving staples. In a yawning shadow, amid dozens of trash bags, was a human being with a thumping heart and shivering, crumpled, skeletal body, tangled hair and skin covered in dirt. He was utterly innocent and vulnerable in that nook. Anyone could have come and stolen his possessions, but something told me that no one ever desired to or would.
I passed the plates to him, saying “Happy Thanksgiving,” my voice sounding too high-pitched, the words floating on the silence and looking too shiny, too fake. The man’s hands accepted the offering with quickness and strength. He then smiled a smile I had before encountered -- wholly grateful, with traces of incurable sadness -- and whispered almost, but not quite inaudibly, “Thank you.” These seconds cut me to the core, for I detected a fundamental hunger in him, something food alone could never satiate. He was deprived of so much more than protein and vegetables. Family, love, a home, a sense of purpose in life -- these were surely things for which he was hungry and could never manage to grasp.
I muttered, “You’re welcome,” and then scurried away, feeling perplexed by the emotions stirring within me, awakening from their years-long hibernation. Back in my car, with the engine off, the silence enfolding me like a blanket, I became disgusted with myself, the way I was wearing a fancy dress and cardigan and planning to drive away in a nice car that I, a mere seventeen-year-old, ought to not have. I did not ask what his name was. I did not keep him company while he ate this meal that was not Thanksgiving to him, but rather nutrients to at least temporarily quiet a rumbling stomach, scraps offered by a timid stranger.
Whom was this act of kindness truly for? Him or myself?
I did genuinely care, but that was the problem. I was struck with the unsettling realization that these tiny acts, although momentarily comforting, were ultimately futile unless I addressed the root of the issue, unless I recognized that this aching piece of humanity did not deserve to merely decay in the shadows of a library entranceway.
I finally put my key into the ignition and drove home, not bothering to break the silence by turning on the even the classical music station. Such music made me feel . Instead, I drove slowly, pensively, wondering about that man’s childhood. Had he grown up in a tiny, insalubrious apartment with a single mother or father who drank away the pain? Or had he been fairly lucky in his early years and had a spacey suburban house to roam around in, two parents with names like James and Susan who financed piano lessons and read stories to lull him to sleep?
When I arrived back home, my hands felt like numb, useless things, so I wept into my mother's shoulder. She murmured, "We can't fix everything." True, I suppose. But when I am older and my hands are more capable, I vow to help at least that man rebuild his life. He needs a world in which he smiles his wonderful smile not rarely, but every day. He needs to be able to feel a sense of contentment and belonging while doing something as simple as passing the butter. Imagine -- it is Thanksgiving, perhaps his favorite holiday of them all, and his house is a warm haven of flickering candles and clinking dishes and ringing laughter.