I watched my mother give a homeless man food once.
It was Spring. We had spent the day in Midtown, Manhattan, and took the 4 train back to the South Bronx. It was a bit of a walk back to where my mother had parked the car. We had leftover food from lunch. It was a girl’s day and I was happy.
The neighborhood I spent the entirety of my childhood looked the same as I had left it. It was also different and some things had changed. This is where I had grown up with so many of my other cousins. Our grandmother was the woman responsible for raising all of us while our parents worked. Although we were not allowed to leave the apartment during certain parts of the day, Abuelita [Grandma] let us hang out on the avenue after school.
The mixed aroma of the food from the fried chicken place on the corner, and the Chinese restaurant overpowered my nose. The laundromat was crowded as always. The supermarket was surrounded by the same crowd of elderly Hispanic women doing their ‘compra,’ [food shopping] with their little carts. The dollar store had their new arrivals sprawled outside with those large neon yellow signs that read, ‘3 for $2.99,’ in red permanent marker. The deli had the same crowd; the elderly playing their lotto, kids buying snacks after school, like the individual Swedish fish or now & later’s that were sold 10 pieces for $1. This was the same store my grandmother would bring me almost everyday to play her numbers, and she would let me get either one piece of candy or an ice cream.
St. Mary’s Park was not too far away. The smell of barbecuing was present, children would be on the playground or running through sprinklers, boys would play sports, the neighborhood ladies would be discussing the weekly ‘bochinche,’ [gossip] about the new episode of their novela, [soap opera] and the men in the neighborhood would play their daily game of dominoes. The kind old man who sold the ices in the area would walk through the block singing, “Coco, Mango, CH-E-RRRR-Y.” Whenever he came around, the kids would immediately run over. The ice cream truck was always parked in the same spot right outside of the park. The same neighbors of my grandmother lived in the area and always greeted my family when we came back to visit.
The man sat in a wheelchair. As I walked towards him, I could see both of his legs were amputated. He had a crumpled up plastic cup in his arthritic hand, moving it around as the coins sloshed around in the cup. I froze in my tracks. My mom taught me it was not nice to stare at people, but in this instance I could not stop, not because I was being judgmental, I was heartbroken with what came next. My throat tightened up and my eyes began to swell with tears. My heart hurt. In Spanish, my mom asked him, “Tienes hambre?” [Are you hungry?] The man quickly nodded and the gratitude he felt was expressed through his body language. With his reaction, it was safe to say everyone had passed him by unwilling to help.
Ever since I could remember, my mom always taught my brother and me the importance of not wasting food in our household. She used to say, “You are lucky you have food on your table. There are people in this world who have no idea when their next meal will be. So you will not leave this table until you eat everything on your plate.” As a little girl, I would loathe eating my string beans or oatmeal, which my mom made for me basically every morning before school. I would sit there for hours, staring at my bowl of cold oatmeal wishing it would disappear.
I finally observed what my mom had said all these years. My mom did not hesitate at all. She handed the man her Styrofoam box which was filled with rice, beans, chicken, and platanos. Before we walked away my mother wished him well. He grabbed her hand and said, “Muchas gracias, que Dios te bendiga.” [Thank you very much, God bless you.]
Everything my mom stands for and all the qualities she has are a result of my grandmother. My Abuelita would give the shirt off her back, food on her table, and give up her bed to make sure her family had somewhere to sleep. She was the type of woman who would welcome this man my mother and I came across into her home to feed him. These are the two most inspirational women in my life. Although my grandmother was taken from my family way too soon, everything she taught me I carry in my heart. I see her and feel her presence in everything I do. To my mother, I want to thank you. Thank you for teaching me the value of humility, demonstrating what it means to help those around you, and to be forever grateful for everything we have in this life. When we have more than we need, we should always give back. That act of kindness you illustrated by giving that man your food, does not even amount to a quarter of the woman you are. I hope to make you both proud of me. Love you both to infinity and beyond.