I Owe You Nothing...or Do I?
Her protests were louder than usual. This morning, the Oldsmobile engine sounded more like a horse neighing than any modern mode of transportation. She sounded like I felt. It was clear she needed a cup of tender loving care.
I wish I could afford to give it to you gal, I thought. I pumped a little gas and turned the key once again. Again she faltered. Third time’s a charm I allowed myself to hope and once again turned the key. The engine growled to life and I pumped the gas quickly; just enough to keep her hungry engine-belly full, but not enough to kill her.
It was getting harder and harder to hope that she would last.
Hardship, however unwelcome, was not new to me. I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains, a culture of hard knocks, hard work and hard winters. When I was seven my father orphaned the children in our family by killing my mother in an alcoholic rage and then turning the gun on himself.
I grew up in my native Appalachia with first one relative and then another, but I learned how to cope. It was a rough place, at times devoid of tenderness, but I had survived it. This year however, made those times feel like pleasant memories.
My dear husband of twenty-five years, Roger, was fighting for his life in a cold city hospital bed. I wanted more than anything to be able to stay in the hospital with him, to encourage him and to soothe the pain he was enduring daily from his treatments for leukemia.
But the illness did not make the pressures of the world disappear. My son was still at home, a senior in high school and he needed to be fed. The electricity bill had to be paid, the house payment had to be made and gas had to be put in the tank for my nearly one-hundred mile daily round trip from home to work or to the hospital.
I was beginning to feel the way I had when I was a child. It was all up to me.. and I was alone.
So I went to work every day, rolling out of the chair at the hospital where I had spent the night with Roger or rolling out of bed at 4:00 a.m. at home where I had done some laundry and tried to make time for my son over a dinner of sandwiches.
By lunchtime each day I could drop wherever I stood. My body and soul longed for relief, for someone to offer a cup of tenderness to help refresh me.
I splashed water over my pale white face in the restroom to revive me when I arrived at work one day; I didn’t have to worry about smearing my makeup, no time for such luxuries in my life.
I looked up to see my co-worker Darlene. Her chestnut-brown skin was furrowed with concern and there was tenderness in her soft brown eyes. She cast one furtive glance over her shoulder and then she took my hand and pressed some tightly folded money into it. I looked at it in astonishment. I opened my mouth to say something, but she wouldn’t let me. "Do not tell anyone I gave you this money," she said. "Just go and get your car fixed and let me know if you need any more." Then she just turned and left.
My astonishment was soon replaced by wonder. I knew very little about Darlene. As so often happens with people from my generation, the few friends I had were white. Darlene and I were from different worlds. I had grown up in the Appalachians where people, not like me, did not live and where prejudice and hatred thrived. The high school I had graduated from still carried the mascot name Rebels and marched onto the field under a Confederate flag. And although I did not consider myself prejudiced, I became aware of how isolated I was from people, who were not like me.
Darlene had looked beyond my white skin, beyond my Southern accent and seen the need not just for financial support, but the true need I had that lay beneath the surface; she had stepped over the invisible boundary and became my friend.
As the months passed our friendship thrived; although I must admit she was the strong one. Her support was unwavering when my beloved Roger died.
She offered a cup of tenderness each time I was down; and when the dating scene started calling my name again, we shared hours of laughter and a few tears over dates turned sour.
Darlene never mentioned the money again and never asked me to repay it.
I began to feel like I had known Darlene my whole life. Like an early morning mist, our cultural and social differences evaporated.
Darlene was my teacher; she educated me about love. Darlene had stepped across the chasm of the visible and invisible differences- the unknown that so often divides us, to teach me that we have a responsibility to each other to provide a cup of tenderness when and where it is needed most. And because of Darlene, my cup runneth over.
Brenda Caperton (c) 2005
Chicken Soup for the African American Woman's Soul
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