The dilapidated two story house marked the corner of two single lane roads in the Arkansas hills, and it was old and weather-beaten long before I was born. The windows stared sullenly at the sky, covered only by cheap roller shades that had never seen better days. A rusted tin roof (iron actually, but we called it tin), covered the house, hammered by the summer rains.
The old man who sat on the house's little porch was as tired and gray as the ramshackle house. He was divorced, a small scandal in the churchgoing town, and like the tin roof, he had been hammered by life's insistent pains. No family visited and no children called; he had neither telephone nor car. He looked forward to nothing. He was a patient man, though, and he sat quietly and without complaint, waiting to die.
I knew all this from observation, as I rode my bicycle along the dirt roads around his house and mine; I'd also heard the furtive whispers of divorce when my parents and grandparents talked about him. Everyone called him "Ole Man" Smith. It was such a common moniker that only later did I realize that "Ole Man" was not his first name.
The Canning Frenzy
Summer was the time for gardening and canning, for my family, like those around us, depended on home-canned food to see us through the winter. Because we were poor, we canned green beans, poke greens, peaches and corn, and we either froze juice or made jelly from blackberries, strawberries and plums. It was a frenzy of picking, cleaning, processing and storing. It was my mother's summer duty, and it was my job to help when and where I could.
During the few weeks the plums ripened, we picked them from our trees and from the ground. They were small, no bigger than the end of my thumb, struggling to grow in the rocky clay. The first time I saw plums in a city grocery store, I was stunned; they were nearly the size of tennis balls! I shook my head in wonderment at how hard my mom had worked to make jelly from those small plums. But I digress …
After pulling the stems and cutting away the bad spots with a knife, the plums are washed and then squeezed with a colander to produce the juice. After adding some sugar and pectin, the mixture was ready to pour into the Mason or Ball jars and place in the pressure cooker.
It was hot and tiring summer work. As my grandfather would say, it was "warm, powerful warm." When it's 95F in the shade, it's 110F in the kitchen, with steam escaping the pressure cooker and hot jars cooling on the windowsill. I've seen those jars explode, flinging hot peaches and syrup across room. It's not a pretty sight.
In the middle of all this, my mother looked out the kitchen window at Ole Man Smith sitting on his porch in front of the old house across the road. Without ado, she announced, "We're making plum jelly for him." And so we did.
The Gift of Jelly
A week later, I marched up to Ole Man Smith's front porch. I was holding my box of cargo carefully in both hands. I wasn't very big, it was heavy, and I knew I'd best not drop it and break the jars. "My momma asked me to bring this to you," I said. "She made it for you," I added.
I watched a panoply of expressions play across his face. First, there was the fear that I was selling plum jelly door-to-door. He fumbled with this wallet, pulling a few dog-eared one dollar bills from inside. I assured him that my momma had told me two things, very clearly. First, that I was to deliver this box of jelly jars to him. Second, and even more importantly, under no circumstances was I to accept any money from him in return.
"It's a gift from her," I added unnecessarily.
Fear was replaced by surprise that my momma had thought of him. Gratitude and appreciation soon followed. There was enough jelly to last a man all winter, perhaps even two winters.
"I reckon this will go real good with some biscuits," he said.
As he picked up the box, he turned and said, "Tell your momma, I'm much obliged." Then he did something I'd never seen him do before – he smiled.
The Lesson Learned
I walked home feeling all warm inside, knowing that even as the delivery boy I'd done a good thing. That one box of plum jelly taught me more about the power of unexpected kindness than a hundred Sunday school lessons. It really was more blessed to give than to receive.
I realized much later that she sent me as the delivery boy to save her and the old man the embarrassment of a gift offered and a gift gratefully accepted. Though she never said so, I suspect it was also so that I might be a part of the gift.
As we face difficult economic times, with people losing jobs and houses, seeing hopes dashed and dreams deferred, it's important to remember the power of simple kindness. Support your neighbor, do a good deed, help a stranger. Even the small things matter, sometimes they matter most of all.
Together, we can make a difference, and we will each be better for it. The plum jelly taught me that.