Humble request touches the heart
An old woman’s plea for ‘britches’ identifies a need.
It was a blustery winter day. The wind whipped about spiraling dry leaves and paper scraps everywhere. As I searched for a close-in parking space in the enormous Walmart lot, I glanced at the temperature gauge, 35 degrees. The nearfreezing conditions and dark clouds overhead made it feel like snow or “mixed precipitation,” as the weather forecasters like to say. After hunting for my gloves, I wrapped my fleece jacket around me tightly, and hurried from my car to the entrance of the store.
Near the door, an old woman wrapped in a light shawl sat on a wooden bench waiting. Her dark eyes seemed to pierce right through me. Then she spoke, “Please Dearie, can you spare some change for a pair of britches? I have none.”
I was completely taken aback, embarrassed for her, embarrassed for me, and embarrassed for passersby who might have heard this uniquely intimate plea. My imagination went wild for a few moments. I tried to figure out how this could be! Was she raped? Were her underclothes so ripped that they were beyond repair? Were they soiled? After a few minutes of this free-range panicking, I realized it really didn’t matter, the fact remained that under her skirt she was wearing nothing.
Over the years panhandlers have asked for money, a hamburger, dog food or coffee, but no one has ever pleaded for this basic necessity — underwear. How desperate she must have been to beg, feeling exposed and totally stripped of human dignity.
Flustered, I handed her $5. She thanked me and went inside. Although I am usually comfortable being around poor and homeless people, this felt awkward and I didn’t know how to react. My first thought after she went inside was purely practical and ridiculously focused on fashion. I worried that she would never find “britches” in there. The underwear aisles as I recalled had packages of lace thongs, neon bright bikinis and rainbow-hued hipster panties designed for the very fit or very young. Did Walmart even carry “britches,” I wondered? Then I prayed that they would — plain, cotton and ample-sized.
A long time ago, a wise man taught me to leave the judging of this sort of thing to God. So it never crossed my mind that the $5 might be spent on cheap wine or donuts. Others more cynical might find me naive, so be it. What I do know is that pantries often have second-hand clothing or shoes for people down on their luck, but it is rare to find underwear.
A year or so later, it’s still hard to admit, even to myself, that I froze after giving her the money. I turned away and never took the next step. The image of the old woman huddled on the bench, waiting in the cold rendered me useless. Maybe it was her asking for underpants, woman-towoman, that got to me. Maybe it was the otherworldliness of the entire situation. I had never heard anyone use the term “britches,” although I remembered the word from novels. Or perhaps the real reason was grasping that this could be me.
I failed the old woman wanting “britches” by giving her $5 and walking away. We didn’t share first names, discuss the wintery weather or shop together as women do. She went her way and I went mine, a routine business exchange, so it seemed. I was the one, however, who got a rare gift from this encounter. The image of the old woman haunted me, making me wonder. In this season of Advent, was she there truly waiting in need or simply giving me, a sinner, a chance to be Christ-like?
A surprise Christmas check from Good Shepherd Episcopal Church and the generosity of two parishioners made redemption possible. Blessings upon the old woman, I knew exactly what was needed. We loaded up my truck with underwear: men’s briefs in various colors and sizes and a selection of women’s panties. Then we hit the streets, stopping at spots where homeless people gather. We greeted each other and exchanged pleasantries. Then, everyone got a choice of “britches,” along with a piece of decency they deserved. Hallelujah!