I used to deliver Meals-on-Wheels one day a month. The second Wednesday of each month. I did it for about two years before my job got in the way.
Delivering those meals was an experience I'd gladly do again. Because I learned quite a bit from it. About myself, about parts of the community around me I otherwise would not have seen, and about people I'd otherwise not have met.
Deliveries were usually made in teams of two. One to drive, one to run the food up to the house. I usually teamed up with Marge. She was a long-time area resident and owned a local travel agency. She was at least 25 years older than me, so she usually drove and I did the leg work. Our route dictated visiting an apartment building which had deliveries on multiple floors. There, we parked and both toted the deliveries. She has since retired and moved to New England to be closer to her family.
I met Marge while we were on the board of the local chamber of commerce together. In fact, we were delivering as chamber volunteers because the organization had committed to doing a Meals-On-Wheels route every Wednesday.
We would meet at the hospital where the meals were prepared to load up. 11:30 am sharp. All meals needed to be delivered by 12:30 pm at the latest. We'd also pick up our delivery route book. The route always covered the same geographical area. Our route was MV South 1. While we had a number of "regulars", other locations would vary. There were typically 10-12 people on the list. The first thing to do was to count them so we would know how many milk cartons, cold sacks, and hot boxes to pack up. Thermal carry bags were provided.
The best part of all this was NOT the smell of the food. It did NOT smell good. The cold sacks usually had fruit and bread and stuff like that. The cold sacks didn't smell bad. The hot food did. I don't know what was in those little foil boxes with the cardboard lids, but it never smelled good enough to eat.
This whole thing wasn't really about the food. Well I guess it was, but it was more about the people. We met some fascinating people. Some scary people. Some sad people. Some lonely people. Some friendly people. All old people. All fragile people. All people.
Some folks just opened the door and took the meals. Others had us put it in the 'fridge or on their table. One lady has always has us set her table. Some had caretakers or others family members in attendance. There was one old fellow who always took a long long time to answer the door. He had an amazing bruise covering one side of his bald head and face that never completely went away. Another woman was quite clingy. The minute she opened the door she'd grab my arm and start talking about how her son never visits her and how much she misses him. Every single time. Heartbreaking it was. I mean, how should one respond to that? I always tried to interject something about what a lovely day it was or how her robe was a pretty color. Pretty lame, yes? But lots of the folks were chatty, so I got better with small talk.
One of the scary and sad variety lived in the apartment building. He wasn't scary as in physically inspiring fear, rather more inspiring fear of ever sharing his fate. That's where the sad came in. He lived alone. The door of his apartment would only open about a foot. Because the apartment was completely filled with stacks of newspaper and other such detritus. We would only catch a glimpse of the man amid the stacks of newspaper as we handed over the food. But we could see he was still in his pajamas. And his pajamas were not clean. Ever. He was a starred entry in the route book. If he ever did not answer his door, we were to call a special number. Someone was looking out for him. I guess we were too, in a smallish way.
One day when Marge and I entered the lobby of the apartment building, there were people hanging around. A woman about my age and someone I took to be her husband. They eyed what we were carrying.
The woman spoke up. "Are you from Meals-On-Wheels?" We nodded. "I thought so," she said. "My father has about 600 of those same milk cartons all around his apartment."
Ayup. Her father was the scary sad fellow. They were there to pack him up and move him to a home in Florida near where they lived. The woman looked stricken as she told us more of the condition of his apartment. We nodded and made sympathetic faces. What I really wanted to do was shout "WTF? OMG!" It was completely horrifying. Use your imagination based on the limited conditions I've mentioned. Newspaper stacks. 600+ milk cartons. Mostly full. Meals-On-Wheels delivered two cartons a day, excepting Sunday. Holy hell. Think about the smelly foil containers with the cardboard lids. They were all around too. We didn't deliver to his apartment that day or ever again.
Another woman really made a lasting impression on me. She was of the friendly and lonely variety. She also lived alone in the home where she had raised her family. The home in which her husband had died several years prior. She was not a healthy woman. But she sure was cheerful. More than once she gave me a tour of the pictures she had hanging all over her house. Her family. Her husband. Herself. Each one had a story attached. She would show me a picture, tell me a story, then tell me to run along and finish my deliveries. Always with a smile and a hug. And a sincere "thank you". She once told me a story about the four huge bushes in front of her house. Her husband had planted them just after they had moved in. One represented her, another him and the other two their children.
One day, a year or so after I had stopped delivering, The Boy and I drove past her home on our way somewhere. There was a big sign out front advertising an estate sale. I pulled over. Because I needed to know what happened to the nice lady who had lived there. Although it was obvious. I cried. I couldn't help it. The Boy looked at me sympathetically and patted my arm. I think he understood. The women running the estate sale said I was about the tenth Meals-On-Wheels volunteer to stop by that day. Now when I drive by her old house, I see those bushes and think of her.
So. Scary, sad, lonely, friendly, old, fragile and wonderful. All of them, as Marge and I and the rest of the population, have moved right along. To wherever it is we are bound. Shall I wax philosophical about how fleeting time is? How we each have but finite time on this planet? I could, but don't feel it's necessary. Aren't we pretty much aware of that already?
But I will suggest this. Our communities, and we as individuals, are better if we play an active part. So get out there and give something of yourself to yours.