When I was growing up during the 1950s, we had a small kitchen table, but we only used it on occasion. Most often, it was occupied by radios and televisions. Wires, resistors, tubes, transistors– organized clutter. The scene appeared ever so much like the thousand-piece puzzle that only the anal-brained can assemble. That was Dad’s space. An electrical engineer, he routinely disassembled, repaired and reassembled radios and televisions on our kitchen table.
That Mom allowed a repair shop in her kitchen was an enigma to me. A ten-foot square, the kitchen was where she spent a good portion of her day. It was the thoroughfare of our modest home. The most traveled area, it connected the living room to the stairs that led to the basement and the backyard door. You would pass the phone, range, sink, refrigerator, and, of course, the kitchen table.
I would ask my mother about the radios and televisions on the table. “Whose are they?” I would inquire.
“Dad is fixing them for…” and she would give a name. I seldom knew the person. As a youngster, I assumed that Dad was repairing these things for extra money. I was aware that at Christmas time he would go to the train depot that sits atop a hill in Boise and unload packages for several December weeks. By sacrificing his evenings, he could earn enough for presents. During the other eleven months, I figured, he supplemented his income by fixing radios and televisions in the kitchen. I had no reason to assume otherwise, and no explanation was proffered.
The lights began to come on when I was old enough to accompany him on deliveries. The occasions went something like this:
“Ring the doorbell, Larry.” I would obey.
Soon the door would crack open and a figure would emerge. When he (or she) recognized my father and saw the fixed radio or television, the person would break into a big smile. “Oh, you fixed it. Thank you, John. Can I pay you?”
“No charge,” Dad would respond.
Then various reactions of gratitude followed. I always felt uncomfortable at these moments. It was as though I had just intruded on a private conversation. I recognized that charity was being exchanged, and I was unprepared for the accompanying emotions. I learned that in many cases, the recipient simply hadn’t the means to repair the radio or television. At other times, the act was a gesture of friendship. In either case, my father’s generosity had been precipitated by pity or affection, and my mother had understood and had volunteered her kitchen table.
Dad found other ways to give. His favorite fruit was the orange, and he assumed it was everyone else’s favorite, too. Sometimes during the year, but most often during the Christmas season, he would load the station wagon with boxes of oranges and make for the widows’ houses. This was a secret venture that had rules: Park the car down the street in an obscure spot that is within running distance; choose a box of oranges, stealthily creep toward the house from the blind side, set the box down quietly on the porch, ring the doorbell, then run like crazy. I was too small to heft the boxes, so my job was to ring the doorbell and hightail it with Dad for the car.
I never saw the recipients’ expressions, but I could imagine them. I supposed that their grins were as large as mine.
In the grand scheme of things, the repaired items and the oranges did not pull anyone from poverty or stave off starvation, but those gestures of charity and friendship did provide a little happiness and perhaps a little relief. Acts of kindness are like stones placed on a ten-foot board that balances on cinder blocks at either end. With the placement of each stone the board bends a little more; then one day you place just one more stone and the board breaks. Likewise, each small act of kindness adds weight until the platform finally gives way and the mountain of blessings falls on a grateful recipient. And in the process, the giver and the giver’s helper are blessed.
Radios, televisions and oranges are the stuff that family legacies are made of. Like a branding iron, something permanent is seared into the soul that becomes a part of you. The legacy becomes a living thing that cries out for expression. It sounds as delightful as a radio, appears as enjoyable as a television, and tastes as delicious as oranges.
This story was published in Father’s of Father.