By Megan Hanlon
We rounded the corner past an endcap of hand sanitizer and turned down the aisle of canned foods. My son and daughter raced ahead, excited to be inside a store for the first time in months even if they did have to wear masks and steer clear of others. This wasn’t a physically necessary trip, like shopping for shoes in August, but a morally necessary one.
I stopped in front of the vegetables and called the kids over.
“Do you want to get corn or green beans?” I asked my seven-year-old son.
“Both,” he said.
He picked a can of beans and a can of corn off the shelf, and set them into our cart.
“What about you? Which do you want to get?” I asked my four-year-old daughter.
“Both!” she said. Her brother tossed in two more cans.
“Now we need to get some gravy,” I said, pushing the cart forward.
“What’s gravy?” my daughter asked.
“It’s a sauce that some people put on mashed potatoes and turkey,” I explained.
“I don’t like turkey.”
“I know,” I replied. “But this isn’t for you. It’s for other families that need it.”
Into our cart went two sets of everything the school had put on the Thanksgiving donation list: canned vegetables, gravy packets, boxed mashed potatoes, boxed stuffing mix. My heart swelled. Instead of picking one non-perishable item to donate, these thoughtful children wanted to give all that was requested of them.
In the check-out line, my kids matter-of-factly told the woman running the register that their school was giving this food to families who don’t have enough. As if sharing abundance was the most normal thing in the world, something neither to be boastful about doing nor ashamed of receiving.
Having lived both sides, I believe that’s the truth.
From the ages of seven to 17, my family gratefully accepted food donations during Thanksgiving and Christmas, and many other seasons too. I spent most of my childhood in a rural southeast Texas town that was small—about 5,000 residents—and economically depressed; at least 20 percent of households were below the poverty line, including mine. Although both of my parents had college degrees, they also had diagnosed and undiagnosed mental health issues.
From gas station mechanic to forklift driver to fast food employee, my dad struggled to keep a job. My mom stayed home to raise my brother and me, filling out endless paperwork for Medicaid and food stamps alongside school permission slips. There were times the electricity was shut off for an entire week in winter and the phone was disconnected for months, further hampering my dad’s ability to find work. We lost one house to foreclosure and we were kicked out of more than one rental because of chronically late payments. Eventually my parents separated. Unable to find work, my mom had a breakdown, our trailer house was repossessed, and I went into foster care my senior year of high school.
I climbed my way out of that tumultuous childhood. More than two decades later, I’m a successful and stable adult living in Ohio with my husband and two children. We have plenty of food, uninterrupted electricity, and cars that cart us around the suburbs, but I will never forget the circumstances I came from. Though my mom died nearly 14 years ago, I still remember the smells of her special holiday dinners made with donated canned goods from a community pantry and a turkey purchased on food stamps. You can’t put a price on memories like that. No matter what your income level, everyone should have the chance to have full hearts and full bellies.
It’s crucial to me to pay forward the help my family received then—and to ensure my children understand that there are many people who do not have the comforts and resources we do now. We help others whenever we can, especially at the holidays. Since so many have lost hours or jobs due to the pandemic, this year it’s more important than ever to share the things we are fortunate to have.
I explained to my son and daughter that I used to be just like the kids who were going to benefit from the food drive at their school. We agreed that they are going to make two families very happy this Thanksgiving. On Monday, each of my children walked into the building lugging a blue grocery sack heavy with donations. In my mind’s eye, my seven-year-old self was waiting just inside the building to receive it with gratitude.
Megan Hanlon is a work-at-home mom living in suburban Cleveland with her husband, two children, and a disobedient Boston terrier. She thinks Thanksgiving deserves more appreciation and more pie. Find her on Facebook and Twitter, and her blog, Sugar Pig.
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