Charity Can Be Tricky

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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange says the quality of charity, like that of mercy, is not strained. But it can be tricky.

(Lange) It was forty years ago. Mother’s Girl Scout troop had been visiting the children of a hard-up family on the mountain behind our village. In the dirt-floored cabin sheathed in felt paper, they’d helped the kids decorate a tree with gilded milkweed pods. And on Christmas Eve, Santa Claus himself would deliver the presents the kids wanted most. They were all atwitter. Could it be?

It could. Panky Duclos, a local pensioner, played Santa Claus each year in a Plattsburgh shopping mall. On Christmas Eve I’d pick him up, still in his costume, and on the way home deliver him to his most important performance of the year.

The quality of charity, like that of mercy, is not strained. It blesses him that gives and him that receives. But it’s trickier than mercy; handled carelessly, it leaves the giver feeling self-righteous and the receiver humiliated.

Most of us lead lives of apparent security. But security is illusory. A Hebrew maxim urges giving charity without stint, because you never know: your own family might need it someday.

Mother once had a bright idea. “Let’s ask people in our parish for the addresses of folks who could use cash. We’ll pick ten names and then on Christmas Eve fan out and visit them. When they answer the door, we hand them a $100 bill and say, ‘Merry Christmas!’ Then we just leave.” Everybody thought it was a great idea; but the actual visiting was less popular. So we had several extra stops to make. Everybody was grateful, and most were nonplussed. We got away without many questions.

At a three-story walkup with leaky ceilings and extension cords everywhere, Mother got a crash course on low-wage jobs and outrageous rents. “But we don’t complain much,” the woman said. “If we do, there’s a waiting list for this apartment.”

Our eight-year-old and I drove to a different address. She looked in the window and came right back. “I don’t think this is the place,” she said. I went to check. In the kitchen, two women in bikinis were rubbing each other’s backs with beer bottles. Sort of a shiatsu session la Budweiser. Wrong place.

But back to the shack on the mountain. Unfortunately, Panky’d been paid off, and by the time I got him, he was loaded. He hummed happily as we tooled through the night. I dragged him down the path to the shack and shoved him inside. Two wide-eyed kids peeped from behind a blanket over the bedroom door. Fumbling with his bag, he scattered hard candies all over the room. “Aw, fiddlesticks…!” he muttered, but went on hauling stuff out. After he pulled out the Barbie doll and cowboy boots, he sort of came to and stumbled back out into my arms. I grabbed him and took him home. Charity, unlike mercy, can be tricky.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a carpenter, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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