Lessons on giving from my grandmother


Euphemia Hayman Reher grew up in what she referred to as “want,” thanks to her Scots-Canadian coal mining father who tended to drink away his salary. Want, to her mind, was not poverty but a correctable condition.

“A body can be in want without losing their pride and their values,” she would say.

Pride helped her through the “want” of her young married life in the rough, road surveyor camps of the Pacific Northwest. She and a new baby lived in a tent on Seattle’s muddy Magnolia Heights, packed mules along what is now the Alaska highway and panned for gold in the Yukon.

Throughout, she both saved and used her energy to help “the less fortunate.”

By the time I came along, she and my grandfather owned a Buick and a bungalow in Portland, Oregon, belonged to the Rose City Presbyterian Church and her pattern of giving had become a way of life that involved the family on Sunday afternoons.

“Ben,” she would say, “is this a good time to visit our shut-ins? Mrs. Locke (or whoever) is doing poorly, I hear.”

An hour later and we’d be in the car with my grandfather at the wheel and the trunk full of baskets.

Those baskets. Gram obviously worked to fill them, tailoring the contents to the recipient — all people she’d known from church before illness or age and poverty left them “shut in.” The baskets contained bottles of home preserves, cans of tuna, loaves of bread, cookies, tea cakes, crocheted blankets, bed shawls and caps and warm socks. There might be a tin of tobacco for Mr. Gionatti, whose principal pleasure was his pipe (I’ll never forget him because of its wonderful aroma). Or, at some point in the week, she might have taken the bus down to Rose Avenue to pick up a prescription for old Mrs. Stoddard.

“Why do you do this?” I asked more than once over the years. Her answers varied from, “It’s my Christian duty,” to “Cast your bread upon the waters,” which would come with a short lecture from Ecclesiastes 11.

She certainly didn’t do it for gratitude. As often as not, her less fortunate bodies would open the door with an abrupt, “Oh, it’s you, again. Well, you’d better come in.”

“I was hoping to trade you a few things from my larder for one of your ________ ,” she’d answer and later stress again that these were people in want, not charity cases. “Waste not, want not is my motto.”

Some of her shut-ins smelled. Their houses smelled. Their beds, in particular, smelled. Then, Gram would add their names to the church “good works” list of shut-ins. The ladies took pride in donating their time working together (the more fortunate with a driver’s license and vehicle would provide the transportation), remembering that “cleanliness is next to Godliness.”

Once, no one answered the door. “Go sit in the car, Patty,” Gram ordered. I did as told, frightened by her tone and what followed as Grampa looked in windows and Gram knocked on neighboring doors. After a long time, during which I remember trembling with the cold and maybe fear, the police came.

“Mrs. ___ is at peace with God, now,” Gram said when she joined me.

Those were the days before Medicare and Medicaid, before social safety nets and organized food banks and professional home care. Family and community, individually and together, felt a duty to, as Gram would say, “help the less fortunate” by taking a direct hand in their lives.

Why did Gram tend her shut-ins so assiduously? I’m pretty sure her reward and her motivation came not from their gratitude but from the warmth she felt from the doing, from erasing some of the wants.

Why is this relevant today? Because, thankfully, in a small community like ours, we still have church networks and other support groups that reach into homes to offer personal care to those in want. Like Gram, we, too, can experience the unique pleasure of filling wants — that sense of a swelling chest, a light in the eyes and a curve to the corners of the mouth.