From Piss-pots to Praise


When I was a child, I dreamed of living in a mansion with marble pillars, large terraces, and spiral staircases, but I would have settled for running water and a toilet. The kids on the bus were cruel, and would yell out the windows, “Shack, shack, shack” as I exited. Needless to say, our house was very modest and we were very poor.

“In the yard, sat our only source of water—a four-foot tall, rusty, brown hand-pump. The exterior walls of the house were unfinished, and Father painted the bare particle boards the color of espresso beans to conceal their natural state. The painted texture looked and felt like Shredded Wheat. On the shingle-less rooftop a massive television antenna gave the appearance of a 6-point buck standing at attention, and perched beside it, a skyscraper-high lightening rod. The windows were a careless and unattractive mixture of shapes and sizes—oblong, rectangular, and square. Some hung up-side-down with bent nails to hold them in place.

Beside the house, were piles of rotted lumber, a tarnished ice-chest, a mildewed mattress, a bee infested junk car, a rabbit cage, mangled bicycle parts, and Sparky the Basset Hound, Festus the St. Bernard, Lassie the Collie, and a football-sized bullfrog named Lumpy.

Throughout the inside, Father stained bare sheets of plywood for the ceiling. A track of bulky 2X4s ran high and low through the house; from crown molding, to baseboard, to chair rail. With those scraps, Father erected bunk beds, shelves, closets, and walls. Pink insulation, electrical wiring, and small bats sprang from the holes in the house.

The hallway had a shag rug with once bright stripes; blue and gold and burgundy dulled by years of wear and tear. Near the back exit, there was a pull-down staircase. My parents and their insistent need to hoard caused the attic storage to overflow into the hallway and the rest of the house. The already narrow hall was packed with cardboard boxes, milk crates, and trash bags full of clothes, rocks, books, papers, and more items which Mother referred to as “what-not’s.” Somewhere amongst the stuff, our two cats slept, Patches, and Lady Bug, who had a crippled leg.

The linoleum in the kitchen was ingrained with grime and gouges, and peeled up around the edges. An antiquated wringer-washer sat tucked between the refrigerator and more tittering stacks of “what-not’s.” A metal scrub board and wooden-laundry rack rested between the dinner table and the wall. Two five-gallon buckets with fresh water sat on top of the kitchen counter and two others buckets sat below the sink to detain the liquid which emptied from the drains. We call the ones below—The Slop Buckets. These buckets smelled putrid. Soap scum and unrecognizable food particles floated on the top.

An antique double-oven-stove invaded the living room. It sat plush against the flowery arm-chair. The living room floor consisted of a mish-mash of free carpet samples haphazardly arranged and tacked down. A bulky television sat on a weathered blue stand, and was equipped with a pair of rabbit-ears and a coax cable that trailed to the roof.

The back of the house had three bedrooms, a hallway, and a bathroom. Only my parent’s bedroom had a door. The rest of the rooms had blankets or curtains tacked over them to provide some semblance of privacy.

In the living room, the little warmth the kerosene heater emitted didn’t venture past the hanging wool blanket, which divided “the front” of the house from “the back.” In the winter, the temperature in the bathroom and bedrooms reached single digits. During the winter, Mother selected “Wynken, Blynken, or Nod” (one of her many terms of endearment for my sisters and I) to run and turn on their electric blanket before bedtime. We didn’t have the luxury of flicking a switch to warm our beds. We did it by rubbing our arms and legs against the sponge mattress until the brisk movement warmed the enclosed space, or until we become too exhausted to kick any longer.

In the center of the house was the bathroom. It was a sink-less, vent-less, door-less, and windowless plywood room with shelves to store excess food and pans on. The only light source was a string with a forty-watt bulb. A checkered pink and white curtain hung over the door for privacy. Against the wall sat two five gallon buckets with lids. These “piss-pots” fume of urine and feces. When the pots were full and the lids could no longer contain the soiled paper, cigarette butts, and human waste, we dumped them in a pit behind our house, and afterward, swooshed a capful of Pine-Sol in each bucket for sanitation purposes.

Throughout the summer months, the aroma from the waste pit permeated the country air, causing the outdoors to reek distinctly of the Dodd’s… (a small excerpt from my memoir titled, In the Land of Canaan, Maine: A Little Girl’s Giants, to be published).”

The Kindness Diaries

Over the weekend, I watched The Kindness Diaries on Netflix. It’s an incredible journey of a former stockbroker who sets out from Los Angeles to travel around the world on a vintage motorbike fueled by kindness. He makes his way around the globe, by asking strangers for shelter, food, and gas. Again and again, he’s astonished by the generosity of humanity, from the homeless man who shares his blanket to the poor farmer who helps him with his broken down bike, and the HIV-positive mother who takes him in and feeds him.

Creating a culture of kindness doesn’t happen by accident. Maybe, we can’t all travel the world relying on the kindness of strangers, but maybe, just maybe, we can do small things with great love.

“As tiny scales join to form a strong coat of mail, so little donations combine to form a large total of good.”

As children, my sisters and I were preyed upon by an uncle, sexually abused, and sold. Needless to say, we looked forward to Sunday mornings, when my aunt would drive thirty minutes to pick us up for church and feed us Twinkies. However, picking us up made her late, which prompted the pastor to say, “They’re not worth it.”

I wonder, What measuring stick was used to determine that we weren’t worth it? Was it because we received food stamps, stood in Government cheese-lines, smelled like piss-pots and cigarettes, had snarls in our hair and holes in our shoes? Or was it because, being on time was more important than the kindness shown toward three little girls, who were looking for a way to escape the pain, if only for a few hours?

Acts of kindness have a way of making the elderly, the poor, and the emotionally tattered feel human.

There’s an ancient scripture that God declares: “I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with loving-kindness have I drawn thee.”

The word loving-kindness literally means “acts of love” or “good will.” Love isn’t love until it is acted upon. In every Jewish home, you will find a pushke. It is a container used to collect money that will be donated to charity. This Jewish tradition originates with the Bible, which God commands the people to perform acts of kindness. To the Jewish culture, these acts of kindness are as important as all the commandments combined.

There’s a scripture in Luke that says: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” What if Jesus was the ultimate Pushke, or Container of Good Will? Consider this, The Creator of the universe robed Himself in flesh and came to earth to dwell. He healed the blind, the lame, and the deaf. He fed the multitude, sat on a well in Samaria, turned water into wine, took thirty-nine lashes with the cat o’ nine-tails, walked The Via Dolorosa all the way to Calvary, and emptied Himself out for all of humanity.

Whew! Now that's "Good Will."

The Universe and Pushkes

Growing up, I can only recall a handful of kind memories. The most memorable is one I shared previously, and feel compelled to share again:

In middle school, my twin sister and I were ridiculed and picked on—especially in the lunchroom. We’d rarely be able to find a seat, and sometimes, when we did, a cheerleader or a jock wouldn’t let us sit there, or, someone else would beat us to it. And each time, the lunchroom would erupt into laughter and we’d scamper away humiliated. So as a solution, my sister and I volunteered to wash dishes and serve trays during our lunch. This way, we could eat before the lunch rush came in and ensure that we’d have a place to sit without being told: “This seats taken,” “Take a hike,” or “Does anyone else smell anything besides me?”

It was the final day before Christmas break. Charlene and I finished eating our mashed potatoes and gravy, before putting our rubber gloves and aprons on. Multiple times, we noticed the lunch ladies glancing our way and whispering to one another.

Mrs. Ruth, the head cafeteria lady made her way toward us with two tall gift bags. She held out her hands and shooed the bags at Charlene and I. The bags were mint and cream striped with JC Penny written on the front. I held the rope-handles and looked at Mrs. Ruth for further instruction.

“Well,” she said, “what are you waitin’ on. Go on, open ‘em.” The other two ladies gathered around.

I jerked open the fancy bag. Reaching in, I pulled out a knee length purple jacket and a pair of matching moon boots. I wasn’t sure how to react or how she expected me to.

“Thank you, Mrs. Ruth,” I said, holding the jacket up, and grinning with bared teeth. “It’s beautiful. I don’t know what to say.” I wanted to dance, and shout, and hug her neck, but was too afraid of crying and becoming vulnerable in front of them.

Overwhelmed by Mrs. Ruth’s kindness, and as hard as I tried not to, a trail of tears snuck down my cheeks.

Mrs. Ruth’s eyes watered, too. “Well, try ‘em on. Let’s see what you girl’s look like.”

I kicked off my old grimy sneakers. My big toe and heel poked through the worn threads. In hopes she didn’t see, I stretched the worn threads and tucked the hole between my toes. The boots were plush and warm and purple. I loved them.

“Nice,” She said, smiling winsomely, “Now the jackets—”

I flung my jacket with patches sewed on the sides and stuffing poking-out from under the arm onto the floor, and threw the long purple one on. The jacket came below my knees and touched the rim of the boots.

Mrs. Ruth said, “You two look beautiful! Go on. Go see what you look like.” Her words “you look beautiful” stuck with me.

Full of fervor we hustled to the basement bathroom and viewed ourselves in the full-length mirror.

“Finally,” Charlene said, “we look normal.”

“I know what you mean,” I responded, spinning halfway around in the mirror, and rubbing my eyes to make sure they weren’t playing tricks. “I can’t believe it myself…” (a small excerpt from my memoir titled, In the Land of Canaan, Maine: A Little Girl’s Giants, to be published).

Rather than measuring and inspecting each other, one might wonder, what would happen if we made giving the rhythm of our daily life?

Maybe, the key to a purpose driven life isn’t being to church on time, but treating The Universe like a pushke. Where every smile, kind word, good deed, hand wave, warm hug, and donation is contained, and poured out, like a fondue fountain of molten goodness, regardless of status, racial background, religious beliefs, or birth place.

Today, the rag-a-muffin little girl, who “Wasn’t worth it,” is a wife, a mother, a pastor’s wife, a blogger, a writer, and an inspirational speaker. Through the Savior’s ultimate act of Good Will, and the kindness of a Twinkie, or two; a purple jacket with matching moon boots; and the teary-eyed words of the lunch lady--- "You look beautiful," I’ve made the emotional and spiritual journey From Piss-pots to Praise, and you can too!

I am M.O.R.E. than a Conqueror…and can be, too!

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M.O.R.E

Francine Westgate

Marvelous . Original . Resilient . Empowered