McEntee: Small gift from the past still looms large in the present
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Many, many years ago, I was a broke college student getting by on a part-time waitressing job and, when necessary, doing an hour of dish washing that earned me a cheeseburger and a cup of coffee.

This was at Big Ed's, a diner close to the University of Utah. One morning I was sitting at the counter, sipping coffee and, probably, bagging class, when an Episcopal priest I knew walked in.

He slipped me a check for $25.

I was stunned. Twenty-five bucks was a lot of money, especially back in, well, you don't need to know how far back. I asked him why, and he just said he'd heard I was having a bit of a hard time. I promised to pay him back. He said that wasn't necessary and left.

And that simple gesture — then and in these hard times for so many people — is the essence of generosity.

On this Thanksgiving Day, The Salt Lake Tribune launches its annual Season of Giving, producing stories about organizations and individuals who fight poverty with food, drink and a place to sleep. These efforts will benefit, among others, the elderly, refugee children, youngsters afflicted with terrible illnesses, and kids in shelters to free them from abuse and neglect at home.

The final installation will explore how to continue helping those in need all year long — how to turn a Season of Giving into Seasons of Giving.

Here's the deal: As individuals, we all can make a difference, maybe not every day but as the occasion invites.

Buy a book for a school library. Buy one for a child you know. If you are so moved, take dinner to someone on the block. I learned this when neighbors brought us a Thanksgiving meal (I was eight months pregnant and working that night) and, after they already had left, even ran back with a couple of Cokes.

I know some folks hate the idea of giving a panhandler anything, but if you have a buck or two, why not? A wise old woman I knew would say that if your hands are knotted in fists, you don't have to give anything, but you can't get anything, either.

Once I gave a dollar to a woman waving a sign asking for help outside a Gateway parking lot. Another woman who was walking by told me, "God will bless you 10 times for that." (This benevolent comment came even though I hadn't been thinking of God in that moment.)

I have friends who, all year long, cook dinner for homebound elderly people, then stay and talk — a gift likely more meaningful than the salmon, soup or snickerdoodles they deliver. Another friend runs a nonprofit to teach English to those who need that language as much as their own.

My mother gave everyone the gift of her time and conversation. My dad used to bring his catch of fish to a down-on-its-luck neighbor family. During the Great Depression, his mother would offer a sandwich and a cup of coffee to any hobo who knocked on her door.

These are the patterns of generosity, generation by generation, example by example. Small gifts, with a big heart.

I suspect we all have memories of an unanticipated act of generosity that may, this Thanksgiving, be a nice topic for talk around the table.

I've never forgotten Father Ed. The priest's check was for $25. But the real worth of his simple, unexpected act of kindness, then — as now — was so much more. It meant — and still means — the world to me.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at pegmcentee@sltrib.com, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter: @pegmcentee.