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Silent Charity

My high school class held its 50th anniversary reunion last year, and it was the occasion for a lot of conversations about the past.
Many of us attended kindergarten together – in 1947.
We lived in a small, close-knit town, and our families had known each other for decades before we were born.
That was the reason for an unexpected and memorable chat that I had during our celebration.
I was speaking to a woman whom I had known since we started elementary school together. As we talked, she mentioned the high regard in which her parents had held my grandfather.
My grandfather was a grocer, so he knew a lot of people in that town, but I had never known him to have a particular connection to this woman’s parents.
But she told me that it was part of her family’s oral history that her parents had bought a car in the late 1930s and found that they couldn’t keep up with the payments.
They were in danger of losing the car when they mentioned it to my grandfather, and he gave them the cash they needed.
On the one hand, I was taken by surprise. My grandfather died almost 50 years ago, and I hadn’t expected to hear his name at our reunion.
On the other hand, that story fit into a pattern; it was another fragment of a picture of my grandfather that I pieced together over time.
Grandpa liked to talk, and he could make himself heard across a wide street.
He talked about many things, including his health, which he discussed with shoppers in our store who shared his fascination with aches and pains and doctors and remedies and the medical-advice column in the Paterson Evening News.
But he never talked about his charity.
I got my first inkling of it when I was about ten years old and was snooping around in the files in our grocery store. That was in the early 1950s, and I found invoices that were dated in the 1930s.
I asked my father about it, and he told me that during the Great Depression, if people couldn’t afford to pay their grocery bills, my grandfather didn’t ask them for the money.
A few years after that, I discovered that a man who had once worked for my family but had become alcoholic and nearly destitute would periodically appear at our front door on a Sunday, when the store was closed, and my grandfather would take him inside and give him several bags of groceries.
And when Grandpa died, I spied a woman at the wake, sitting alone and sobbing. I recognized her has a former customer of ours. She told me that there had been many occasions when she would not have been able to feed her two children if my grandfather hadn’t extended her credit for months at a time without ever asking for payment.
Grandpa went to church faithfully, and he liked to read Bible stories, but he didn’t discuss religion much – including his view of morality or social justice.
Apparently he took seriously Jesus’ advice about keeping the right hand in the dark about what the left hand was up to.
But his actions spoke loudly enough, and they made his a model of the kind of life Jesus called us to with his Great Commandments.
I regret that I had to piece that model together and never had a chance to tell Grandpa how I admired him.
But, then, he probably would have answered, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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