I was swinging on the front gate, trying to decide whether to walk down the street to play with Verna, my best friend in fifth grade, when I saw a tramp1 come up the road.
“Hello, little girl,” he said. “Is your mama at home？”
I nodded and swung the gate open to let him in the yard. He looked like all the tramps who came to our house from the hobo2 camp by the river during the Great Depression. His shaggy hair hung below a shapeless hat, and his threadbare3 shirt and trousers had been rained on and slept in. He smelled like a bonfire4.
He shuffled to the door. When my mother appeared, he asked, “Lady, could you spare a bite to eat？”
“I think so. Please sit on the step.”
He dropped onto the narrow wooden platform that served as the front porch of our tworoom frame house. In minutes my mother opened the screen and handed him a sandwich made from thick slices of homemade bread and generous chunks5 of boiled meat. She gave him a tin cup of milk. “I thank you, lady,” he said.
I swung on the gate, watching the tramp wolf down the sandwich and drain the cup. Then he stood and walked back through the gate. “They said your mama would feed me,” he told me on the way out.
Verna had said the hobos told one another who would feed them. “They never come to my house,” she had announced proudly.
So why does Mama feed them？ I wondered. A widow, she worked as a waitress in the mornings and sewed at nights to earn money. Why should she give anything to men who didn’t work at all？
I marched6 inside. “Verna’s mother says those men are too lazy to work. Why do we feed them？”
My mother smiled. Her blue housedress matched her eyes and emphasized her auburn7 hair.
“Lovely, we don’t know why those men don’t work,” she said. “But they were babies once. And their mothers loved them, like I love you.” She put her hands on my shoulders and drew me close to her apron, which smelled of starch and freshly baked bread.
“I feed them for their mothers, because if you were ever hungry and had nothing to eat, I would want their mothers to feed you.”