Posted by Debra Solomon Baker on January 22, 2010
The quibbling during dinnertime is the worst. There’s something about the dinner table that’s supposed to be holy. You know, we sit down together, savoring the home-cooked meal, swapping stories about our daily triumphs, cheering each other on. We are not supposed to be erupting over who got stuck with six baby carrots, rather than five. We are not supposed to be complaining about a freckle-sized brown spot on our slice of pear. The elder, impatient for chocolate chip ice cream, is not supposed to be commenting on the sluggish pace of his younger sister’s macaroni eating, or tallying the word count on her roundabout stories. We are supposed to be giggling like the Bradys.
Tonight’s fracas, however, is delightfully oxymoronic.
It stems back to last night, when Max and I arrived at our synagogue at 7:30, armed with crocheted blankets (stitched by my student’s grandmother), a deck of cards and some picture books, a few toiletries, and a change of clothes for the morning. We were there to camp out on air mattresses with the homeless women and children who depended on open doors in 59 churches and one synagogue. It was the 3rd Wednesday of the month, Congregation Shaare Emeth’s turn to host a program called “Room at the Inn,” and I had read that volunteers were needed for the overnight shift. I signed up. And Max insisted that he wanted to join me.
Six hours later, I lay restlessly awake on my air mattress and wondered about the others asleep in that same room. I had wrapped up shivering Ashley with one of the donated blankets, and she had boasted that when she was just eleven, she had learned how to crochet in foster care. What had happened in her life? And then there was the woman with the boldly-colored head scarf, the woman whose name I never learned, the woman whose five-year-old daughter announced to me that she and her mama were going to the zoo tomorrow and then, guess what, skating the next day. She may have been without a toothbrush and in a filthy pink t-shirt, but life sure sounded perfect in that little one’s imaginary world. And I thought about this nomadic trudging from church to church to church, night after night, and the carting back in the mornings to the day shelter, and how gratefully one of the women accepted my offer of a bar of soap and a tiny vial of vanilla body lotion, and how I just wished that I had more to give to her than some stinkin’ toiletries.
And then I thought about Max, asleep beside me. I remembered his final question to me before he fell asleep on this bed, in this room, with these strangers. “Mommy,” he had whispered, not wanting to be overheard, “Does Jimani get to go to a good school, you know, like mine, or does she have to go to one of those, you know, those other kinds of schools?” Exhausted, I had answered abruptly, a quick, I’m not sure, and, it’s really time to go to sleep. But I realized now the meaning behind Max’s question, Max who understands the bitter cycle of poverty. He wanted to know if Jimani had a chance, or not. I just don’t know, Max. I don’t know if your new-found friend, the little girl to whom you read “Fancy Nancy”, the little girl to whom you so patiently tried to teach the card game, War, the little girl who made you laugh with her cartwheels, that you chased around the room, pretending she was too fast for you, I don’t know if she will get out from under this mess. I wish I could tell you a fairy tale, but I am too tired for that and, you, my son, are just too smart.
So, tonight, at the dinner table, Max is sharing tales of the evening and suggesting that his little sister is too young to volunteer, that she would be too tired, that she might get frightened in the dark room. This is big guy work, he seems to be saying. And, seven-year-old Sarah, of course, is asserting her strength, attempting to slash his argument, bit by bit, whining that she wants to go next time, that she wants to help the homeless.
This is one beautiful little brawl.
And, in the end, I assure both of my dear children, that there are, and will continue to be, plenty of Wednesdays.