I work at a soup kitchen located in the town where I live. Not as a volunteer, but as one of two paid employees. I was a volunteer for nine years before I was hired. My interest in the soup kitchen began innocently. I chaperoned a “field trip” for the school service club my daughter belonged to. It was Christmastime. As a holiday service project, each family donated homemade Christmas cookies, and the kids bagged them up to distribute to the people who eat at the soup kitchen. I accompanied them to pass out the bags of cookies. I recall being struck, shocked honestly, by the number of people in my community who depended on the soup kitchen to eat. I signed up to volunteer that day! One thing led to another and, nine years later, after putting in hundreds of volunteer hours, I became a paid employee.
We serve lunch at the soup kitchen each weekday. The kitchen is open to anyone who is hungry. No one must qualify in any way, shape, or form to eat. All are welcome. We see a diverse group of people on a regular basis. Not surprisingly, some of our guests face hardship in their daily life; generational poverty, addiction, abuse, and homelessness are common. Other guests visit the kitchen to eat purely for the sense of community it provides. Several of our guests have been dining at the kitchen for many years. It is not uncommon for those of us who have been volunteering at the kitchen for a lengthy amount of time to form a relationship with these guests.
Charlie was one of our longtimers. I don’t recall when I first noticed that he visited the kitchen every day. I probably took note of him when he began to visit with an oxygen tank. I learned Charlie had COPD. When he first began relying on oxygen, the small tank was in a sling he carried over his shoulder, much like a purse. Later, it became a larger tank that he pulled behind him. Neither Charlie’s illness nor his oxygen tank slowed him down. He used to say, “every day I wake up and open my eyes is a good day.” He lived at a senior housing complex nearby and walked to the kitchen each day to eat.
During the summer months, we offer a bag lunch program. The lunches are distributed to at-risk youth, but several years ago we distributed lunches to the seniors at the apartment complex. There were a dozen seniors who signed up to receive a bag lunch. As I went down the list delivering lunches one morning, I saw a long, hard to pronounce, very Greek looking name. Many of the seniors at the complex visited the soup kitchen, but I was unfamiliar with this name. I thought to myself, perhaps someone new has moved in? I knocked on the door. Charlie opened it! “Oh, Charlie! It’s you! Are you Greek?” Indeed, he was. I let him know that my ancestry was Greek and Polish. I told him my grandfather had been born in Tripoli, Greece. He smiled and when I handed him the lunch, I noticed that he had sparkling blue eyes, just like my grandfather. He told me Charlie was easier to pronounce than his real name. I enjoyed visiting him each time I delivered lunches that summer. Once summer was over, Charlie resumed his daily walk to the kitchen for lunch.
This past summer, I began my job as Director of Development for the soup kitchen. One of my responsibilities is to thank donors. Each week I receive an updated report of recent donations. I handwrite a thank you note to the donor and then go into our database to mark the donation as having been acknowledged. Imagine my surprise when I saw that long, hard to pronounce, Greek name on my list! Charlie was one of our donors! To add to my surprise, when I went to our database to click the acknowledgement box, I noticed Charlie was a longtime donor!
Charlie and I mostly exchanged pleasantries. I happened to be at the kitchen the Thursday after Thanksgiving. Charlie was sitting with a few of the ladies from his apartment complex. I visited their table and sat down. Charlie was more chatty than usual. We were talking about families and he said, “Show me a picture of your family.” I scrolled through my phone and found a picture of my husband & I. As Charlie looked at the picture he said, “He’s a good-looking guy. And, he’s really lucky to have a nice girl like you.” I agreed, and we laughed! I showed him Abby’s picture. He chuckled and said, “Wow, where’d she get that blond hair?” I laughed again and explained that my mother-in-law has blond hair. Then, I showed him Heather’s prom picture. Charlie’s eyes lit up as he smiled and said, “Oh my goodness. She is beautiful! She looks just like her mama.” I smiled. Immediately I could feel my eyes fill up with tears, so I excused myself for a moment and went outside.
Charlie’s comment caught me off guard. He was not aware of my family’s journey. He never met either of my kids. I didn’t have to explain anything. All he saw is a beautiful girl, who does, undeniably, resemble her mother. The moment made me realize I had spent so much time, especially at the beginning of Heather’s journey, feeling like I needed to explain things. I longed for the moment when I didn’t have to consciously think about using the correct name and pronoun; when saying the words “I have two girls” rolled off my tongue effortlessly; when people see Heather not as transgender, but as the beautiful person she is, inside and out. That moment had arrived!
Charlie’s health took a turn for the worse rather quickly. I never saw him in person again. Sadly, he passed away December 20. He touched my heart more than he will ever know. Rest in peace my friend, you will be missed.