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No one was ever turned away

By Margaret Hope Bacon / April 8, 1986



AFTER a homeless man broke into our warm building one freezing night, our Quaker meeting decided it had to do something about the situation of the men and women sleeping on steam vents all around our center city meeting house. The result of this concern, as Friends call it, was a decision to help support a shelter for homeless men not far away. We provide volunteers, a driver, and a hot meal a week for the men who live at the shelter. My husband and I share the job of transporting the food each week. I have come to treasure this small task, and yesterday I realized why. Handing over my trays of macaroni and cheese to a rather scruffy-looking older man, I had a sudden flashback to a moment in 1930. I was a child, and my mother was standing at the door of our Manhatten apartment, answering the knock of a cold and wretched-looking man. He told her he had not eaten in three days, and she invited him into our tiny kitchen and fixed him a simple meal.

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It was deep in the Great Depression, and my father, a free-lance artist, was finding it very hard to earn enough to pay the rent or keep food on our table. My mother's worry over our own growing poverty was hung like a cloud over us all. Yet day after day, hungry men would somehow find their way to our fourth floor apartment, and she would feed them.

Until recently, I never knew quite where this charitable impulse had come from. Then, as she approached her 96th birthday, her thoughts went back to her own childhood, and beyond that to the childhood of the little Irish-Canadian mother she had loved so well. And she told me the story of my great-grandfather, John Grant, born in Ireland in 1796, and his insistence that strangers must always be fed at his house.

The family emigrated to Canada in 1815, and settled in Irish Creek, a small community in Ontario. As its name implies, it was made up of a settlement of families from central Ireland. They were Irish Protestant, and what caused them to migrate as a community I do not know. John had fallen off a donkey as a young boy growing up in Ireland and as a result suffered what the family called ``a withered arm.'' He could not have had an easy time farming the virgin Ontario land. Moreover, the community needed a school-teacher, and although he was not highly educated, he was the best qualified. So he took time out from his farming to teach.

In Irish Creek, John Grant met and married Ann Collins, also born in Ireland. John had only one son, Alex, to help him plow the stubborn fields.

The Grants were very poor, and everyone worked. The girls milked and helped in the fields and put up food, and mended and sewed, and cooked the meals. Neighbors sometimes helped John at harvest time, and with the men coming and going from the fields, food had to be ready all day long. After their simple supper, when the dishes were washed and the work at long last done, it was a great relief, Grandmother had said, to let the fire in the wood stove die down for overnight.

But it was at night that homeless, wandering men often came to the isolated farm to ask for a meal. And John Grant would insist that the women of the family light the fire once more and cook for the stranger. Hannah, my grandmother, never forgot the Bible verse he quoted to defend this practice: ``Never turn a stranger from your door lest you entertain an angel, unawares.''

Eventually, Hannah Grant left Irish Creek to marry Peter Hope, my Scots-Canadian grandfather, and establish her own family, of which my mother was the youngest member. Peter Hope ruled his family according to the strict tenets of patriarchy. One of the chief rules he enforced was an almost brutal thrift.

But in Stratford, Ontario, where they lived, there were homeless men, too, and Hannah somehow persuaded Peter that she must follow the tradition in which she had been raised. When wanderers came to the small stone house on the edge of town, she fed them, even when there was scarcely food to go around among the four Hope children.

This then was the tradition my mother kept up, in an apartment in Greenwich Village, N. Y., in the 1930s, although my father teased her by saying the tramps must have made some mark on the buiding, so many found their way to her door. She knew all about making referral to the proper social agencies. Nevertheless, she remembered her mother and she, too, fed the homeless.

I looked up the Bible verse in the Concordance the other day. It is from Hebrews, and it is not quite as my great-grandfather remembered it: ``Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.''

Still, close enough. I do not know if my ancestors ever entertained any angels. Today of course we all know there are more sophisticated ways of dealing with long-term causes of hunger and homelessness. But I cannot feel other than touched by the sheer humanity of tradition, maintained for more than 150 years by such thrifty and simple people. And who knows, if I pass it on to my own children and grandchildren, someday one of us may yet hear the flutter of wings. Margaret Hope Bacon