Op-Ed

Olga and the Aliens, A Valentine to My Wife
February 20, 2009
by Lee Seham

With grace and solicitude, the tall, slender, green-eyed woman served savory beef stew to the homeless men.

Wait a minute!  That’s no woman, that’s my wife!

The rough facts are these:  about four years ago two homeless men froze to death in Mount Kisco. Both were illegal aliens – from a population too fearful to seek help from state-run shelters.

Five churches and a synagogue leapt into action.  In seriatim, each for a week at a time, they provide food and shelter to the homeless starting in November. Then they double back and do it again so that the entire winter period is covered. No one has died since.

My wife is not nearly as nice as she pretends to be. I am considerably nicer than I pretend to be. Indeed, there is a plausible argument to be made that I am nicer than she.

I harbor a not-so-secret resentment that my wife’s saccharine smiles are universally received as genuine. She doesn’t really like you – she’s faking it you fool.

But, there she was, serving these poor men with a radiant visage. She glowed. There was love in her heart and it showed. And it made her look beautiful.

I like to do my charity in short bursts.  Mostly by writing checks. On this occasion, I was the overnight monitor. One uncomfortable night on a church couch and I’m done for a while. Like taking a band-aid off: one quick pull.

I thought of my wife serving food to these men for the better part of two weeks. Then I started looking at the food. Last night it was Lemon Chicken. Tonight beef stew. Tomorrow another gourmet meal. All lovingly prepared for strangers by the ladies of the First Congregational Church of Chappaqua (FCC). Ladies like Judy Strohm, Jill Hart, Florence Hovy, Margaret Mahaney, Kathy Swenson, Barbara Offenhartz, Kelly Mofield, Sue Hacker and Ellen Lewis. God bless them. Really.

As I gazed at the food and reflected on the love it showed, my eyes misted over. Olga saved me: “Kind of makes you wish you were homeless, doesn’t it?” Evidence of my influence – she’s far more politically incorrect than when I met her.

Then she told me how the 90-year-old Ruth Robertson baked corn muffins for that evening’s meal and, cane in hand, brought them to the church. And to sustain the men through the next day, there were bagged lunches from members of the Saint John and Saint Mary’s Catholic Church – they were so excited about helping that they wanted to know when they could do it again.

Membership in mainline Protestant churches in our area is either stagnant or declining, and I worry whether ten or twenty years from now this source of organized love will no longer exist. But, in the meantime, it has its impact. And it has affected my own behavior.

The men left on a bus at 6:00 a.m. and I left at 6:10. As I drove off, I saw one of the men waiting at a bus stop.

He was the biggest, fattest and smelliest of the bunch. While the others had movingly expressed their gratitude for their meal, he had made rude comments to my wife. But she engaged him with smiles and sympathy even as I was preparing a profanity-laced rebuke in my mind. Now, the next morning, he was alone in the dark.

I pulled over in the nearest driveway, collected myself, and doubled back. Even as I pulled up to the bus stop, I prayed that he would decline my offer. I worried about the stink he would leave in my car.

My prayers were answered. He declined my offer explaining that it was only twenty minutes until the bus came. As I drove away feeling profound relief, it occurred to me that he didn’t need a lift to a destination – he just wanted a warm place to sit. I then reflected that the “rude man” had called me “sir” and thanked me warmly. And maybe he got the impression that someone cared about him.

So, I wish I could feel the love that Olga and the FCC church ladies genuinely feel toward these unfortunate men. But, maybe faking it can have some value too.

Lee Seham is a labor, employment and immigration attorney who has lived in Chappaqua for over eleven years. He serves as Church Counsel to the First Congregational Church of Chappaqua.

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