I have always thought of my mom as a pioneer. Growing up in the 1950s, I watched her work hard at gardening, sewing, mending, making do, bottling fruit, and helping others, all things I imagined pioneers had done. In helping others, Mom never worried about being repaid or whether a person was deserving; she simply helped people whenever she could.
Our neighbors didn’t stay long in the rental houses near us. As migrant workers, they followed the crops, helping with one harvest and then moving on to where another one was just beginning. While those families were in our area, our huge yard was the gathering place for games such as hide-and-seek and tag. We children never noticed (nor did we care) that one or another of the “new kids” was dressed more shabbily than we were. But Mom noticed. She made a point of getting to know each child, and whether she wanted to or not, she soon knew things about our playmates that we didn’t always realize. Some of these children had absent, abusive, or alcoholic parents and so were sometimes neglected. Mom did her best to offer them a bit of security and love when she could.
One boy, whom I will call Richard, lived next door to us. Though a year or so older than I, he still joined in our games. Once in a while, when his parents were gone, Richard ate a meal with us. I guess that is when my mom began to realize how hungry he usually was. Eventually, it became a morning ritual for him to have breakfast with our family and then walk to the bus stop with us children. I noticed that he never carried a lunch to school, which struck me as unusual because in those days our school didn’t have a cafeteria. At noon, Richard was never around while we lunched under the eucalyptus trees.
One morning, not long after he began eating breakfast with us, I noticed a brown bag next to the row of lunch boxes on our kitchen counter. After breakfast, my siblings and I lined up for Mom to hug us good-bye and hand our lunches to us. As usual, Richard stood by the door, waiting to leave. That day, however, Mom called, “Richard, you forgot something.”
Puzzled, Richard came to see what she meant. She gave him a hug and handed him the brown bag lunch. His expression changed to a mixture of surprise, joy, and appreciation. “Thanks,” he said softly.
Every school day until Richard moved away, my mom prepared his lunch. And every afternoon after school, he returned an empty paper bag, carefully folded.
Years later, when Richard was grown and successful, he returned to tell my mom thanks for all she had done for him. This time it was he who hugged her. He told her, as she had known so many years before, that he had needed the hugs as well as the love in the brown paper bag.