Once, when I was far from rich, but not altogether poor, I had the honor of being the sponsor of a child in a charitable program called Save the Appalachian Children. Every month I contributed $10 to help the child. And every month the child wrote me a dutiful thank-you letter, addressing me as "Dear Sponsor" and signing herself, "Jenny, 9 years old."
After almost a year I wrote to Jenny to tell her that I would shortly be taking a trip through the Appalachian Mountains and that I would like to meet her. "I even have a present for you," I added. Jenny replied that yes, she'd like to meet me too, but not at her home. She enclosed a map showing me how to get to her schoolhouse and said she could meet me out in the schoolyard one Friday afternoon right after school.
I arrived that day shortly after school let out. Children were hurrying from an old building that looked like a huge soggy eraser and heading for a waiting school bus. As I went into the schoolyard a light rain began to fall.
The child who came toward me as I stood waiting in that gravelly schoolyard was wearing black galoshes and a green raincoat and carrying a green umbrella. They all looked new.
"Are you my sponser?" she asked, stopping a few feet away, her head, like a bird's, cocked to one side, her mouth agape and her gray-green eyes widening. I smiled and nodded. From the way she stared at my ragged peacoat and bony face I could tell that what she felt like saying was, "Gee, you look like you could use some charity yourself."
But instead, brushing some wisps of hair from her eyes, she recited a little speech that she had doubtless rehearsed many times: "Dear sponsor, thank you for the galoshes and the coat and the umbrella and also for my shoes. I wish I could stay and visit with you but I have to go home and take care of Mama now. I hope you have a nice time in our mountains. Thank you again for helping me." Then, doing a deep curtsy, she rose and stood awkwardly still, waiting for her present.
I bowed to her and said, "You're welcome, Jenny, for everything." But inwardly I felt a little chagrined. It was true that it had not been easy for me to give even a little charity; but until that moment I had never realized how much harder it must be to receive than to give. Jenny's ceremony of thanks had barely hidden the struggle in her between need and pride, and I could feel the bittersweetness of the things my money had bought her.
So, to spare her a great show of gratitude for it, and me a great show of bountifulness, I did what I could be make light of her present, an orange woolen scarf that I took from my pocket. I pooh-poohed its expense. I apologized for its nongreenness. I even forewarned her against showing it to any sheep she knew, since at the sight of it they might say "Baa!" Then finally, going down on one knee in mock courtliness, I presented it.
With thin, praticed-at-not-seeming-eager fingers, Jenny took it, smiled her thanks, and ran off to board the bus. As that old mountain-ferry rattled off down the road, she waved the scarf at me from her window. Like a bright thirsty flame it licked and licked at the falling rain.