When I was small my mother had what she called an “egg route”. With baskets of fresh hen eggs—washed and stacked into cardboard flats or single-dozen cartons—filling the back of our station wagon, she drove over roads that twisted like pretzels from our farm in the small borough of Prospect, Pennsylvania to the larger nearby town of New Castle to deliver her wares. Many of Mom’s customers were homemakers, wives of men who left in the dark each day to work in the steel or coal industry. These were strong, capable women in middle-age who did not seem to know they weren’t supposed to love their jobs. With their wide, apron-wrapped waists and wider smiles they seemed to me as inseparable a part of their kitchens as did their flour-dusted tables and busy steaming stoves.
I always liked riding along with Mom on a delivery day, but never more than at Christmas or Easter time, when these women would be slow roasting meats and baking sweetbreads stuffed with dried fruits and scented with anise and icing dozens of cookies.
“You must come in. Come in,” they’d command, in heavily accented English, when we knocked at their back doors. And Mom always obeyed, to my great delight. Not only did those egg buyers’ houses smell like I imagined heaven would, but I knew from experience that for the next fifteen minutes to a half hour, while she visited over a cup of strong coffee, my brother and I would gorge ourselves on sweets. (We were the youngest in a family of five at the time—all boys, except for me. A platter of anything never lasted long on our table.)
The extra minutes we spent visiting with Mom’s customers could be seen as wasted, especially since they extended our delivery day considerably.
But they were not wasted.
Throughout my life I’ve kept the memory of those women and the gift of their warmth, recalling the effect their neighborliness had not only on my brother and me but on my mother. Young as we were, we could tell that Mom enjoyed our visits in those homes as much as we did. Although she wasn’t the type to complain, I think her customers knew she had troubles. In their kind kitchens the pain and fatigue that came with her rheumatoid arthritis seemed to lift for a time. Refreshed by their friendship, her brow would smooth, her spirits would lighten, and she’d break into song or entertain us with a story from her childhood as we drove up and down the hilly streets of New Castle, finishing the day’s deliveries.
There have been other moments like those over the years, instances in which other human beings, other children of God, showed a bit of generosity or did me or my loved ones a kindness. And it strikes me that a few of those gestures—an encouraging grin, a sympathetic glance on a difficult day—could be considered so ordinary, so commonplace, so slight, as to be downright insignificant.
They have in truth all been earthquakes, changing the landscape of my life.
It’s an amazing thing, and awfully humbling, to consider how huge a small offering—just a plate of cookies and a bid to sit a while—can be.