Wednesday, July 14, 2010

This Grace of Giving...

But just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us —see that you also excel in this grace of giving. (2 Corinthians 8:7)

Yesterday I interviewed a 90-year-old man for my community column in the Tampa Tribune. Typically, such conversations provide enough information in 30-40 minutes, but we must have chatted for a couple of hours.

The reason I'm doing the story is the unique gift he's willing to share with needy children; something I don't think I've ever run across, especially in men from his generation: Ed is a whiz at sewing, and he makes children's clothes.

"So if you're not a seamstress," I observed, "then you must be a seamster!"

Like any real-life person, a little probing beneath the surface revealed a fascinating story. The explanation as to why, retired from a career in manufacturing in Michigan, my new friend spends several hours each day designing, cutting patterns, and sewing children's clothing, is a slice of history that runs into three centuries.

If you want to know why Ed makes children's clothing, the story begins back in the 1890's, when his father was an infant - his grandmother fell and hit her head while climbing a fence. She died and her husband left his children - several - to be raised by relatives. Ed's father learned to fend for himself and went on to raise his own children - during the Great Depression - to do the same.

"My sisters were all required to to 'boy stuff'," Ed said. "They had to hammer, build fences, feed the animals, fix the roof. And then I was taught the 'girl-stuff' too. I learned to cook, clean, take care of the laundry... and make my own clothes."

The context of history and of story makes all the difference. You can't watch Ed's steady hand on the electric sewing machine (his fourth), without thinking about the day in WW2 when he lost thirty-two close friends after someone ordered their landing craft to the wrong beach.

The neat pile of summer shorts ready for shipping to the Child Abuse Council take on more definition when you know that the guy who made them stood up a new manufacturing plant in Michigan, where he spent a quarter century producing steel drums and fiber containers for Dow Chemical.

Ed was keeping books for a single Firestone store in Indiana when an acquaintance introduced him to a waitress who had a friend, Dorothy. "Dot" and Ed fell in love the instant they met. When they were dating, Dot's father ran into an old friend... who made an introduction... who placed another phone call... And next thing Ed knew, he wasn't a Firestone book-keeper anymore but aC.E.O getting a new factory off the ground in another state.

But Ed wasn't just some faceless industrialist. He was a man who's father's early experiences, and his own depression childhood, and the great burden he carried from WW2, and his sense of destiny, shaped his approach to life. So when Dot had trouble finding comfortable clothes for her petite frame, Ed's great love for his wife merged with his great resourcefulness and he decided to make them himself. He found he had a gift he could share.

Later, retired to Florida and a members of a church that worked with abused children, Ed and Dot found another outlet for his passion and he started making children's clothing, turning out shirts or shorts as needed, customized to size and gender.

Today Ed is ninety years old. He lost his beloved Dot in 2003 and their home was destroyed by a storm in 2004. But he continues to sew, often working until one-thirty in the morning, because he knows he has a gift - and gifts are only given to us so that we can then give them away.
  • Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:7-8)

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