Charity starts at home

Today I got emails from three (very worthy) organizations I support. “We’re almost there!” said one, with a thermometer-like graphic showing their proximity to their goal. “Double the impact of your gift,” said another, promising that a corporate donor would match my contribution. “Only 24 more members needed,” implored the third. “Please reply by 5 p.m. today.”

I saved all three messages for when I got home.

But on my way home, I took a detour of sorts: I called my friend Bob, a retired professor with whom Esteban lived when he was in college. Bob turns 90 today. And although he said last week that he’d just as soon ignore his big day, I wasn’t about to let the milestone slip by unacknowledged.

“Joyeux anniversaire, Herr Doktor Professor Bob,” I joked over the phone. Bob replied in German, I answered in French, and we reconciled the rest in English. (That’s what happens when your friend speaks four — four! — languages.)

We chatted about the rain that will probably turn the Twin Cities into a massive ice rink tomorrow. Bob was worried about going out for groceries.

“Why don’t you read me your list?” I asked. I took a very clumsy dictation as I drove to the store: Three cans each of cream of asparagus and cream of chicken soup; julienned beets; spinach and carrots; quiche Lorraine; EggBeaters; sliced turkey; laundry and dishwasher detergent; something (anything!) made of pumpkin; olive oil … the list went on.

As I drove to the grocery store, I despaired of finding everything Bob had requested. (He likes specific brands. Don’t we all?) But once I started pushing the cart around, I thoroughly enjoyed the task.

I imagined what might pair well with Bob’s quiche. Sparkling pear cider, of course! I started to improvise menus for him as I added a few extras to the cart. And along the way, I discovered that it’s way more fun to shop for someone else than it is to shop for yourself.

I didn’t flinch too much when the bill inched toward $150. That’s about what I would have donated to my three charities today, had I made it home in time to meet their deadlines.

Instead, I watched an old friend weep in gratitude at the unexpected bounty. It felt so good to hug him and wish him a happy 91st year. And it felt so good to know that I’d made a tangible difference to at least one person today.

It’s humbling (and sometimes paralyzing) to realize how much need there is in the world. But Bob reminded me tonight that small gestures can make a difference — and that sometimes, charity starts at home.

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