Helping

By

OUT the kitchen window of my apartment is a view, three stories down, of that unspectacular but vital facility, the garbage disposal area. This consists of eight large bins painted a bright orange by way of combating drabness, and enclosed by a very tall wooden fence. Many's the thoughtful moment I've spent watching people come with their bundles, cast them into a bin, and then disappear back into their lives. There's something heartening to the spirit in seeing people unburden themselves. A few days ago, here came two children, very little girls, and judging by the auburn color of their hair and blue sparkle of their eyes, sisters. Each had a good-sized grocery bag of garbage, carrying it pressed to her chest with her arms around it, the way a little girl often carries a doll almost bigger than herself.

When they came to the door of the garbage disposal area, they set down their bags, and the slightly older, taller child reached up to undo the latch. But so high was the latch that even on her tiptoes she couldn't reach it; she couldn't even come close. Between it and her outstretched hand was all the obstinate distance of ungrown years.

Heaven knows if their parents, tired from work, had sent them out there, forgetting their littleness. Or if the children had sneaked out on their own to do a good deed. What a fix they were in!

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Next to the door is a bush with little red and green leaves that sprout from willowy branches. The older child put her foot on one of these branches, in hopes that it would support her and give her height. But it only drooped to the ground, asked to do the impossible.

Then she stacked one bag of garbage on top of the other and attempted to climb up. But the makeshift ladder collapsed, and things spilled from both bags. Carefully, she and her sister put them all back.

In one final effort she knelt down so her sister could sit on her shoulders, thus doubling their height. But when she tried to stand up, she lost her balance, and over they toppled.

There they sat on the ground, scrunched into a pile of woe, looking around them with a forlornness that didn't belong to their years, a helplessness of innocence. I had hoped they could triumph over the latch themselves. But now I saw they couldn't. I headed down to help them.

On the way, I remembered a time when I was child-high myself. I was visiting by great-grandfather, an old, white-bearded scholar of the Bible. He lived in a modest little house attached to the back of a hardware store and lying almost directly underneath an elevated railroad. While his wife minded the store, he sat at his desk in a musty, candlelit room, poring over his books.

I would sit in a corner, eating a sandwich my great-grandmother had made me and asking him questions.

``Do you know everything there is to know, Great-Grandfather?''

``Only God knows everything.''

``Is it nice to know things?''

``Only the fainthearted miss their ignorance.''

My interruptions did not make it easy for him to study. Often he would cast his eyes toward the ceiling, as if for help. I was sorry to try his goodness so. It was just that I felt such a great love for him, and I didn't know how to express it.

One day I noticed something white on his shoulders. It was lots of white specks, tiny as dust motes. I thought maybe it was old dust, dust that had become a whitebeard, like my great-grandfather. Actually it was just plaster shaken from the ceiling by trains rumbling by on the elevated railroad.

It would have been unthinkable simply to brush it off with my hands. That would have been too rough, too sloppy; the dignity of a great-grandfather had to be respected. So I went to the hall closet, where I knew my great-grandmother kept a feather duster. And there it was, way up on the top shelf -- out of reach.

I tried every way I could to reach it, even standing on a chair. But I couldn't. Imagine my happiness when my great-grandmother found me there, in tears, and reached it for me.

Right up behind my great-grandfather I went, and with a brisk swish this way, and a brisk swoosh that way, I proceeded to dust off his venerable shoulders.

``David, what on earth are you doing?'' he asked.

``You're all dusty, Great-Grandfather,'' I explained. ``And look, it's even in your books. I can see that I'm going to have to dust you off every day.''

His eyes went soft, and he embraced me, feather duster and all. He didn't say anything Biblical, like ``dust unto dust''; he didn't say anything. He just held me a long time, and then, kissing me on the head, told me I could be his duster, official, forever.

The two little girls couldn't understand why I was smiling as I approached them. They didn't know what a latch and a feather duster had in common. I undid the latch for them and opened the door. In they went, with their bags, and, opening one of the bins themselves, for with children as with grown-ups the helped have their pride -- tossed the bags in.

``Thank you!'' they called to me, romping away.

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