Hum­ble re­quest touches the heart

An old woman’s plea for ‘britches’ iden­ti­fies a need.

Austin American-Statesman - - AUSTIN360 DAILY - Judy Knotts Judy Knotts is the former, and cur­rent in­terim head of St. Gabriel’s Catholic School in Austin.

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!

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