Despite All Appearances

Growing up in small-town Mississippi, my family was poor. Not food-stamp poor, but after my parents divorced and my dad walked away—our financial situation left a lot to be desired. My mom worked two jobs to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table, but designer shoes and the latest fashions were never an option. My sister Leana and I were teenagers at the time and we both worked after school. We didn’t have to help with the household bills, but if we wanted something new or something “unnecessary,” we had to pay for it ourselves. All these years later, the days of financial struggle are long behind us. My sister and her husband own a successful construction company, I was recently promoted to professor at the medical center where I work, and my mom, at 75, still works. Not because she has to, but because she wants to keep busy. However, the difficult years led all three of us to become quite talented at being frugal. To this day my sister can walk into any discount clothing store and walk out with the most amazing find. This is the backdrop to the story I wish to tell.

A few years ago, after moving into my new house near Nashville, Tennessee, my mom and sister drove up from Mississippi to help with the unpacking. Normally, they would come in my sister’s truck, but it was in the shop again largely because my sister refused to by a new one. She had the money (she and David always pay cash for vehicles because they “don’t do credit”), but my sister liked the way that money looked in her savings account. So, instead of my sister’s vehicle, they opted to drive my mom’s car. Now my mom desperately (in mine and Leana’s opinion) needed a new car. Hers was 20 years old and looked every day of it. The paint was peeling, the leather seats were peeling, and the headliner was coming apart. But “the engine is just fine” my mom would say and steadfastly refused to by a car. Did I mention she worked at a car dealership?

After spending several days at my new house cleaning and unpacking, their visit was coming to a close. My mom needed to get gas and my sister wanted to check out the new Goodwill store that had just opened nearby (still frugal, of course). At the gas station, my sister decided to buy a lottery ticket since they don’t sell them in Mississippi and “she could do a lot of good with that kind of money”. At the register, she noticed a nicely dressed gentleman and his very young son buying a gas can. Even at 50-something my sister is beautiful when she puts an effort into her appearance. This was not one of those days. On top of that, while 25 years in Nashville has moderated my southern drawl, my sister, spending most of her life in Mississippi, not so much. She probably looked and sounded very much like a down-on-her-luck redneck when she said, “Did y’all run out of gas?” Well, duh, the nicely dressed man probably thought, but he just said, “yes, almost made it, but had to leave my truck at the Walgreens and we walked over.” If you know Leana, you also know that she insisted we take them back to their car. You don’t win an argument with my sister. We all piled into my mom’s “the engine is just fine” car and headed toward the Walgreens, my sister at the wheel. Leana asked what kind of truck he had and, discovering they both drove the same kind, she proceeded to tell the man that hers was a lot older and in the shop. She said she probably needed to get a new one but didn’t want to spend the money. There is no doubt in my mind he thought the only way she would have the money to buy much of anything was if that lottery ticket was winner, but he just smiled and nodded.

We arrived at his truck and we all got out of my mom’s car to say our good-byes. The nicely dressed man pulled out a $20 bill and tried to give it to my mom. All three of us laugh so hard we were in tears. We didn’t need the money, despite all appearances. The man was confused—he was trying to be kind and we did look just this side of destitute. My mom was the first one to pull it together and very kindly said thank you, but no. He insisted. She insisted. Finally, she quoted scripture. Something about doing good for the sake of doing good and not for your own benefit (I am not as familiar with the good book as my mother thinks I should be, otherwise I would probably remember the verse she quoted). The man just looked at her blankly, not knowing what to do. She said, “surely, you would not deny us the gift of helping you?” Okay—what can he say to that? He put his money away, thanked us again, picked up his child and bolted.

We all piled back in my mom’s car and Leana headed toward the Goodwill, which is right next door to the gas station. No doubt, the destination of the man and his son. “No,” I said. “We are not going to let him see us going into Goodwill. Drive around. Drive anywhere, but do not stop at the Goodwill.”