All the participants in the tableau are long dead. What survives is a second hand memory of what happened; the testimony of the witness, my father, as told to me...and of course the sweet, sweet souvenir of the lesson taught some eighty years ago.
I could always imagine the scenario so clearly. I grew up in the house two doors down from my Grandma and Grandpa's house. The last house on 1oth Street, across the street from the slough of marsh and cattails and wild asparagus that lay between us and the Menominee River which ran into Green Bay, the "thumb" of Lake Michigan. Between our house and the river were the railroad tracks. I grew up exploring the same fields, climbing the same willow trees that my Dad had twenty years before me. I spent endless hours in my Grandma's kitchen watching her bake and cook. And although the early 50's addition of the shiny chrome legged, dinette set wouldn't have been a part of the story, I know what the light coming in the kitchen window over the sink looked like and how my Daddy as a young boy would have sat at the table with my grandparents and his three older brothers. I know the pattern of my Grandma's dear old dishes and I can smell the Swedish egg coffee...it would all be the same, as familiar to me now as it would have been if I was there on that day back in the Great Depression.
In those dark times of homelessness, and closed businesses, and massive unemployment and hunger, hordes of men took to the rails. "Hobos","Tramps" hitched rides on freight cars of trains. They formed loose squatter's villages, camping here and there surviving on handouts and maybe if they were lucky, a small job in exchange for something before hopping the next freight. The hobos even had a cryptic code, their own hieroglyphics which they would scrawl on fenceposts or foundations of homes informing members of their brotherhood passing that way in the future that a compassionate housewife likely to share a slab of bread lives here....or a bad tempered husband with a gun leaning in the corner of the back porch. The slough was a haven for the hobos, and my Grandparents must have been approached frequently.
Tap Tap Tap...Tap. The hobo standing at the bottom of the back stoop humbly and respectfully knocked at the base of the back door, providing some sense of security for the housewife, my Grandma as she opened the door above him. The hobo, so the story goes, asked my Grandmother if she could possibly spare a bar of soap for him. My Grandma agreed that Yes, she had a bar of soap for the man....but wouldn't he also join her family for a meal? My Dad remembered it all vividly, because he sat next to the man who carried on a conversation with him about how Palmolive Soap was the best because you could get a good shaving lather from the minty green bars. After the meal, the hobo and his new bar of Palmolive disappeared through the cattails in the direction of the river.
The story continued. The next day, standing in her kitchen Grandma heard, ...tap, tap, tap, and according to my Dad, wondered what her previous day's generosity might have brought upon her as she opened the back door to find yesterday's supper guest.
He offered up his gift.
He'd returned to the campfire between the river and the railroad tracks and had constructed a little table from the end piece of an old wooden apple crate and finger thick willow branches which he nailed together with nails probably pulled from old crate boards salvaged as firewood to warm the men as they slept on the damp ground . He'd even used a jack knife to carve decorative notches up and down the table legs. I know that man could never imagine how very sweet and beloved his table is to me.
Relegated to the family cottage along with other family castoff furnishings whose worth today, if appraised on Antique's Roadshow, would doubtlessly stun my Grandparents, the little table was used for imaginary tea parties by my cousins and me. The inevitable march of life brought fewer and fewer gatherings as little girls and boys became teenagers and moved on...the Grandparents passed away...then some of the sons who had sat around the kitchen table sharing the meal with the stranger. The dear cottage and it's contents were lost in the garish 60's. Forgotten.
Then, one day,with my parent's home as it's return address, a mystery in a large cardboard box arrived at our house. What could it be? As I opened it and pulled aside the protective packaging I peered down inside to see the familiar scars of the apple crate table top and gasped. How could I be so fortunate to possess this treasure? The treasure of the sweet little table, certainly. But it's the story, the ability now as an adult to have such insights into my Grandparent's moral compass, to realize how the generosity of their response to their unexpected guest shaped my Dad and his brothers' way of "doing life", THAT is the treasure. But it's also the unsolvable "sudoku" of what was behind this stranger's gift of gratitude..what was his life story...it's beginning and it's end?
So, I find myself the unworthy custodian of the little table and it's lesson.
"Keep on loving each other as brothers. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it."