I will always remember a Thanksgiving in Pawtucket, about six years ago. In my memory I see a tray of Italian pastries and the beautiful dark eyes of five Puerto Rican children; eyes that had already seen too much in life but could still hold wonder and joy for small things. I remember hearts that were fragile and guarded but still knew how to be grateful. It was actually the night before Thanksgiving.
After church we were indulging in some desserts that were donated by the bakery down the street for our community dinner. Then it was time for me to take Migdalia and her four-year-old granddaughter, Sara, home. Migdalia lived in the worst project in Pawtucket. The first time I went there a little girl gave me a tour and showed me where all the people had died and how. Some on the sidewalk, some inside the dark doorways. Knives, guns. Migdalia had been given a flyer inviting her to our church. She said she slept with it for two weeks then called me one day. Yes I could pick her up. And so began the first of many trips to Galego Court, my station wagon becoming familiar after time and children, moms would wave at me as I drove through.
Are you a social worker? a young man asked me with restrained anger one night as I sat parked outside. A boy named Macho, who came to church sporadically, heard him and ran up to the car. No stupid! That’s the preacher’s wife! And the young man hung his head and mumbled Sorry. That’s OK honey. Why don’t you and Macho come to church sometime? He looked around. Maybe… Macho’s dad was in jail again and Macho rarely came to church. Always on the street. Always shouts “Hello Miss Robin!” when I drive by. So bright this boy was. My breath catches as I drive away and watch him walk back to a gang of kids on the sidewalk.
Under Migdalia lives Maria, a little Portuguese lady who speaks no English but has come faithfully to church the last year because Migdalia asked her to come. And Migdalia plants flowers under Maria’s window. Across the street lives Mandy, Migdalia’s daughter with her four kids. I asked her oldest son one night as I was dropping him home which room was his. He said” We all have the same room” and I said, “Oh! You have bunk beds?” and he laughed at me like I was an idiot and said patiently, “No, Miss Robin, we all sleep in one bed.” All four.
As we were eating our pastries at church I asked Migdalia what she was doing for Thanksgiving and she said she was eating with Mandy and the kids. At Mandy’s? She chuckled. Mandy has no couch. They will come over to my place. Migdalia’s place is the size of my kitchen, barely room for a twin bed, a love seat, and a small table where Migdalia reads her Bible. What will you eat? I asked. Turkey, potato salad and Mandy has a ham and rice. She made it sound like a banquet. I looked at all the pretty Italian pastries…pumpkin, cheese cakes, fruit filled with cream piped across the top of everything, and chocolate cakes. “Take these for your family Migdalia.” After much insistence Migdalia picked a tray and we piled in the car, Maria who laughs in Portuguese and little Sarah in the back, holding the tray on her lap.
On the way we came to a stop and I glanced in the rear view mirror and caught Sara’s dark eyes looking at the tray of assorted pastries on her lap. As I pulled up to the curb in front of Migdalia’s building she waited dutifully for Grandma to come open the door and take them from her. “Tank ooo!” Maria said and giggled as she tapped my shoulder. I turned my cheek so she could give me a kiss before she got out. Migdalia’s face shone, reflecting her beautiful spirit. “God bless you, Miss Robin!”
I watched them move up the walkway across the dirty grass, hearing their laughter fade in the night. Thanksgiving. Giving thanks. How is it those with so little can find such joy? There is a universal language. It is written with God’s boundless love in a destitute heart. It is the glory of a loving Father who provides all and every little thing in the midst of a dark and dirty world. When you give thanks this year, think of five little Puerto Rican children in the projects picking an Italian pastry from a tray in a crowded apartment. They would tell you there is so much to thank God for.