AFTER a homeless man broke into our warm building one freezing night, our Quaker meeting decided it had to do something about the situation of the men and women sleeping on steam vents all around our center city meeting house. The result of this concern, as Friends call it, was a decision to help support a shelter for homeless men not far away. We provide volunteers, a driver, and a hot meal a week for the men who live at the shelter. My husband and I share the job of transporting the food each week. I have come to treasure this small task, and yesterday I realized why. Handing over my trays of macaroni and cheese to a rather scruffy-looking older man, I had a sudden flashback to a moment in 1930. I was a child, and my mother was standing at the door of our Manhatten apartment, answering the knock of a cold and wretched-looking man. He told her he had not eaten in three days, and she invited him into our tiny kitchen and fixed him a simple meal.
It was deep in the Great Depression, and my father, a free-lance artist, was finding it very hard to earn enough to pay the rent or keep food on our table. My mother's worry over our own growing poverty was hung like a cloud over us all. Yet day after day, hungry men would somehow find their way to our fourth floor apartment, and she would feed them.
Until recently, I never knew quite where this charitable impulse had come from. Then, as she approached her 96th birthday, her thoughts went back to her own childhood, and beyond that to the childhood of the little Irish-Canadian mother she had loved so well. And she told me the story of my great-grandfather, John Grant, born in Ireland in 1796, and his insistence that strangers must always be fed at his house.