When something catastrophic happened, they'd have a supper. Church needed a wheelchair ramp, they'd have a supper. Someone's house burned down? They had a supper. Somebody's kid was diagnosed with leukemia? They had a supper. Motorcycle accident? Supper. All sorts: pancake suppers, corn suppers, ice-cream suppers, chicken dinners, fish dinners, game suppers, whatever was in season, whatever could be got up quick to raise money. Went to suppers at firehouses, the Grange, churches, Elks Lodge, Knights of Columbus, Masons.
There would be a notice in the paper and flyers on telephone poles. You'd see a hand-out in the vestibule at church. There would be an announcement at the PTA, something in the lobby at school, or a can for donations at the diner. Hand-lettered mostly, with a photograph maybe if they had one, date, time, place, and a suggested donation to be collected at the door.
And we went. People did. Strangers mostly, to the extent that small towns had strangers. Friends and family and the family of friends went of course, but many times if not most it was just folks going out to eat something nice and for a good cause.
The Grange Hall was a good size, with a large kitchen. Put up enough tables and chairs, you could get one hundred people in there, I should think. My Grandmother Craft went to a church so small it didn't have a proper kitchen and only a privy out behind the parking lot. In summer though, they'd have picnic tables and the women would bring in the dishes and tureens and sheet-cakes and set up by the basement door. They mixed punch -- always nonalcoholic -- in bowls so big men had to lift them. Every church, every hall had those big coffee pots with a tap at the bottom. There'd be iced-tea in the summer too. At the Elks they'd have bottled beer.
Cheerful as the atmosphere might be, the purpose was serious and I never saw a man get drunk at a supper or send back anything they didn't think good. Most of it was good, come to that. Not exotic certainly, nothing unfamiliar, and if the green beans came out of a can and the potatoes weren't quite the way mother made them, well, don't go back for seconds then. People smiled as they came in and smiled as they went out if they smiled at all. You went, you said hello to this one and that one, you sat with someone you knew or you sat where there was a chair, you ate and you went home.
I don't remember much in the way of speeches. Somebody would ask for the attention of the crowd and explain why we were there. Someone said grace. Might be a preacher or just one of the cooks. Nobody begged and nobody shamed anyone for need. Give what you can, eat what you were given and thank the volunteers.
I worked every kind of supper at the London Grange #1492. My Grandma made pancakes and buckwheat cakes on big griddles, cooked Salisbury steak in huge white enamel cookers, mixed hamburger with her hands and argued with the women next to her about how much mustard was too much in potato-salad. Grandma argued easily, but laughed that way too. I turned ice-cream churns, husked corn, poured tea, set silver, and cleared tables, almost before I could see over the tops of them. Later I carried plates and just like in a real restaurant when somebody broke a glass, everybody would audibly gasp and then everybody'd laugh. The steam from the kitchen made everybody hungry and everybody in there would sweat like they were shoveling coal. It was hard work but cheerfully done, mostly.
I do not describe all this from any sentimental longing for a time gone-by or a place I left willingly forty years ago. I don't know that it is right to celebrate the memory of other people's hard times -- because that was what brought every one out to suppers. These were not picnics for the 4th of July, or graduation parties, nor even organized charity, though the same people worked at those too. The purpose was different even if the means were familiar. No one was proud because these were and are times when pride was something in the way of what needed to be done. Good people don't brag about the little they can do to make someone's burden lighter.
The frustrating thing was then and is now how often we can only do but so much. In the absence of a rational and compassionate health care system, when stockholders profit from the illness and tragedies of working people, when too many preachers teach their flocks that God wants them to be rich, and when charity is made a show, and necessity seen as a shame and a scandal, good people will still do the little they can to supply what the rich assume as a privilege of their rank and dispense as an exercise of power. Too many of us in this country, in the West and in the world, believe that want comes from the want of will, that poverty is sly, and that people work at what they choose and do only as well as they do according to their gifts, make their own circumstances, and that we all might be rich if we only did as the rich have done. Balzac may or may not have said that "behind every fortune was an equally great crime," and he may or may not have been right if he did. The champions of contemporary capitalism still tend to dismiss even the idea of criminality in any profitable enterprise whose beneficiaries send their children to "good" schools, have bankers and brokers to manage their money, and support cultural, religious, and political causes conducive to the maintenance of their privileges. The ruthless corollary to this is a deep suspicion, sadly shared by many without the means to support such pretensions, that respectability is conformity by just another name, that poverty breeds criminality rather than the reverse, and righteousness is best measured in a bank-balance. In my personal experience, people more concerned with being taken advantage of by the "undeserving poor" than they are with taking care of those in need do so for fear someone may rightly question how they got all they have.
My parents were born into the Great Depression. My mother remembers when men came to the door for food and work and my grandmothers both gave the first because they hadn't the other to give. My father's family knew genuine want, and they all of them knew the bitterness of poverty and what it was to work harder for less than I can now imagine. Retrospectively, collectively we like to imagine that this, and war, made them better. Perhaps in some ways it did, but it also made them want nothing so much, at least my own, as to want their children and their children's children to never know the like.
All my life I have known work and seen want and sadly I have too often seen when the one was not enough to relieve the other. Someone got sick. Someone fell. Someone had to tend to someone because there was no other way and perhaps did so gladly, but also because there was no dignified way otherwise. Someone did well until they didn't, or couldn't anymore. Someone lost a husband or a home or all that they'd saved. Someone lost his mind, or her health insurance, or their child's hope of a cure for want of the money to treat the disease. Anyone who sees the divine in such suffering stands in a place I've never been and where I would not wish to be seen, though I can't begrudge them whatever comfort they find there. Anyone who sees in such suffering the just punishment of sin or the absence of initiative I would pity if I could, but it seems that likewise is beyond me.
Pride comes into this at the last. Help is not something easy to ask for, where I am from and when it is offered it takes real effort to accept. There is an irony in this not lost on me now. But as we cannot seem to fix the systems that fail us all but a few -- at least not today, at least I can't -- all I can do is ask others to help now as best they can.
Can't have a supper, and a hundred suppers may not be enough. Suppers seldom were. Something though, the something we can do, the help we can ask, we must when the need arises. I must.
My sister's son has been hurt seemingly beyond repair and needs help. If I haven't talked much about this before now it was because it wasn't my place and my sister, her husband and their sons are proud people. They have worked all their lives, worked hard, my sister Sue and her husband Ty, and they do still. Their eldest boy, Dillon, works harder than any man I know other than his father. And now the youngest boy, my nephew, Cole is in a nursing home after sustaining catastrophic injuries when he was struck by a car while crossing the street on foot. He is a new father. He is a beautiful young man not untroubled in the past, though that hardly matters anymore. We would hope to see him cared for and his needs seen to as best we can. The state will not do this and those that might with a wave of the hand cannot be made to, so I would only ask that any that can might do so insofar as you are able.
I can only thank my many friends for their good wishes and be grateful for the help.
As ever, I am humbled by the generosity of those that work, and those that may not have even the means, and angry that so many should want in the midst of so much, but let that pass.
We do what we can. I am glad of the good people.