I was 5 the first time I helped my mother cook a meal for her brother and his family.
She had done this many times before, not just for family members, but for neighbors and strangers who were "going without." Over the years, I have continued to help my mother give to others in the one way she knows best — through food.
My mother grew up in Nicholasville, the oldest of seven, an improvised life by all standards, and yet it was through poverty she learned the value of giving. People constantly gave to her and her siblings. She recalls waking up many mornings on a tenant farm, just off Sulphur Well Road in Jessamine County, to find boxes of clothing, canned goods, toys and foods like fruits, nuts, and candies, all left by strangers, friends and neighbors.
She still vividly remembers receiving a box of clothing left "anonymously" on the front porch steps containing her best friend Sarah's blue corduroy jumper. She and Sarah attended Little Hickman School together, and Sarah always packed extras in her lunch to share with my mother. Sarah was an only child from a two-income, upper middle-class family, but the majority of generosity came from people not much better off than my mother's family.
My maternal grandparents were under-educated hard workers who "inherited" their poverty. They truly did all they could with what they had. So my mother took it upon herself to provide for her siblings. She baby-sat neighbor kids after school and during the summers, worked the tenant farm, sold Avon, and took a job in the school lunchroom in exchange for lunch for herself and her siblings.
But as my mother and her siblings grew, so did their needs, and her solitary efforts fell short. Yet my mother remembers how help always came "right when (they) needed it the most." She says, "All this generosity taught me that when people give to one another, the needs of this world start to balance out." Because her needs were so great, my mother learned firsthand the influence giving has on the lives of the disadvantaged.
My mother never forgot the hunger she endured in childhood, which is why she focuses her generosity on giving food to those in need. There is something soulful about making food and giving it to others. Nourishment is such a primal human need. Of course, my mother's food is usually Southern-fried with a side of love. She makes melt-in-your-mouth biscuits, juicy fried chicken, pies, cakes and all those other Southern dishes made out of the necessity to waste nothing.
My mother says, "In spite of the hardships, my childhood made me who I am," and in many ways, her childhood made me who I am as well. I was fortunate enough to escape the kind of poverty my mother endured but have lived the legacy of giving that was born from her poverty.
When I pull loaves of warm yeast bread from my oven, wrap them up and take them to senior citizens, my neighbors, friends and family, I keep the charity and love of those generous Jessamine County people alive.
Over the years, their giving has multiplied many times, first through my mother, then through me, and now through my son, who rescues stray cats that come to our door hurt and hungry.
There are so many Kentuckians who are still "going without," so I value sustaining the legacy established years ago by people in my home state who perfected the tender art of giving.