Cats, dogs, and men, I believe in feeding strays. When I was young, we’d have friends and family over for dinner. We’d eat comfort food–steak, barbecued chicken, ribs–and after the meal my dad or mom would huddle at the back counter to collect the scraps, the bones, gristle, and fat, off of everyone’s plate. They’d scrape them into a can or box or bag. My dad worked manual labor, hard labor, on a road crew. But before he started each day under the sun or in the snow, he fed strays. At those dinners I was embarrassed when my high school friends would see my dad handling their half-eaten meal, and perhaps my dad was a bit embarrassed, too, as the men at his work—manly men in greasy coveralls and steel-toed boots —laughed and mocked him as he took time to crouch in the bushes behind the machine shed to whisper to an edgy pride of lanky feral cats while he fed them, but now, I have come to realize that I believe in what my father did. He fed strays because they were hungry. He didn’t care who saw him, where the food came from, what the food smelled like in the back of the car as he drove to work, or what the weather was like, he squatted down on his knees in those weeds, exhausted from work, and he fed them because they needed to eat. He fed them because we had enough, because it was wrong to waste food, and because it was the right thing to do. I believe in that. I believe in my mom supporting his effort, in her tearing eyes as she scraped a plate into a box and retold the story my dad had shared that afternoon: A litter of kittens had been killed by an engine fan, and “the mother wouldn’t eat,” my dad had said with a tired sigh, his dry hands hanging empty and helpless. My parents were compassion. They were empathy. They were humble. They were human. They fed the hungry, and I believe in that.
Although I am ashamed to admit it, I have failed to feed others with as much consistency as they fed those cats, but there have been times that I have remembered to live by their example. I’m proud of these times. A few weeks ago I received a letter from an elderly woman I took care of when I was in college. I first met her when I stopped and picked up her distressed eighty year old husband who was walking along the side of the highway. He was disoriented. He had strayed from their home. Now, after years of friendship, it is painful to see that she’s losing her mind and her memories to age. Most of this recent letter was illegible. What I could make-out, though, was a thank you for a casserole I’d given her. It was a three dollar single-serving mix of fried potatoes, vegetables, and cheese that I’d bought on impulse at the end of my shift at a local restaurant, but after six years and a failing memory, she remembers it, and she thinks that this one simple meal when she was hungry, when her husband was sick, when she was lonely, is still worthy of yet another thank you note. Like the stray cats who thrived through the cold winter on the food my father shared, this lonely woman, in the cold solitude of her sickness, still seems to thrive on the memory of that casserole and the comfort and spiritual nourishment that it gives still today, and this is why I believe.
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