One Reason Why I Do What I Do: A Historian's Thanksgiving


A couple of nights ago, I was walking my dog, Baron, around my neighborhood in Maplewood, New Jersey, and some memories came rushing at me. I could do nothing but stop in my path and take notice. 

I must have been eight or nine at the time. My growing family lived on Glenwood Avenue in the rustbelt town of Joliet, Illinois, in a 2.5 bedroom house that I think of as somehow interstitial between our landing (from Ohio) in a poor renter's place in neighboring Rockdale and my parent's first home purchase on Joliet's Prairie Street. It was must have been 1987 or '88. 

On the night of this memory, my dad took me and my brother to pick up some groceries at the old Jewel grocery store, which those-in-the-know will remember lay closer to the corner of Jefferson and Larkin than the current one.

I really don't know what we went there for. In fact, I have I have zero memory of the early minutes of our time there that day or walking through the aisles with my dad and my brother, picking up groceries. I remember nothing of our travels until we went through the check out lane and were on our way out.  

Then the memory comes, forcing itself upon me. 

A disheveled man often stood near the exit of the store. I remember him from my family's earlier, frequent visits to Jewel. The man frightened me. He was gaunt, too thin for his clothes, and dirty. He looked like he smelled (in my memory), though I don't recall any odor, and he acted odd. He carried little booklets around, but until that time, I never knew what was in them. I guess I later thought of the man as "homeless," though many mentally ill people in Joliet who would have been homeless in other places, in fact, lived with family members or in neighborhood-based institutions.

After my father paid the clerk, we went to leave, and instead of hustling us past this homeless man—who haunted me, like a ghost, during that period—dad started drawing us toward him. 

"Hi," dad said. The man shuffled and returned some uncomfortable, incoherent greeting. He spoke under his breath to the store's exterior window. Skipping no beat, dad (his name is Lance) replied, "I was wondering if you could show us some of your coins." And the man again responded incoherently but opened these booklets I had noticed before. 

The books were full of grubby but antique coins, and when the man opened them, the pages shined with magic. I so wish that I could recall for you what the man said, but I was too young to recollect his words now. And yet I remember that he narrated every coin on every page. He knew their histories, their origins, their worth. The man was insane—perhaps schizophrenic—but he was a numismatist who knew the coin collector's craft. And he displayed that knowledge for us on the badly painted bench near the door, which old mothers usually sat on as they waited for their rides. 

My family had little extra money at that time, and my father explained that he could not buy any coins. After he listened for some minutes, dad said to man, "The other night you yelled at me, and I didn't know what I did, but I wanted to make sure that everything was alright between us." Again, the man shuffled. I remember his eyes being wet, though I cannot be sure. But I do remember the look of recognition the man gave my father: at least this one has seen me.

We left soon thereafter. I do not know if my brother and I asked any questions, or if my father recognized the shock in our faces, but I remember my dad saying to us as he walked us to the car, "I am sorry if that upset you, but that man followed me out to the parking lot the other day screaming, and I wanted to ensure that I had not harmed him."

I don't really know what my dad was thinking that night. He's the most private man you could ever imagine. Even his kids don't know him, really. My guess is, if you had asked him at that time what he was doing, he would have pointed to how Jesus acted in the Gospels. Or maybe he would have gestured towards his family or his upbringing in the hill-town of Zanesville, Ohio, where no one is beneath mention. Or maybe my dad was trying to teach my brother and me a lesson. I have absolutely no idea. 

But I do know the effect his act had . . . because I can never forget it whenever I am looking another person in the eye. 

My father taught me that every human being is worth our consideration and attention, no matter what state they are in. As a teacher, I try to carry out that lesson every day. As a historian, I apply it even to the dead. As a social scientist, what interests me most in life are the gaps between us, which keep us from comprehending each other. I work hard to overcome these gaps of understanding wherever I can, even though I know that understanding doesn't always mean agreement. 

I cannot express the gratitude I feel for the path that my father—perhaps unwittingly—set for me. So, let this be my Thanksgiving. 

With love.