Welcome back. I’d like to share with you a little bit about my early life and how a simple can of mandarin oranges changed me forever.
To give you some background, my mother and father were married when they were only 14 and 15 years old. My father was the son of a migrant worker who died when my dad was very young, leaving him to quit school to support his mother and sister.
When I was just four years old, tragedy struck our little family when my father was killed in an accident at work, leaving my mother as a nineteen-year-old widow with two sons, ages four and two.
One of my earliest memories is of Christmas a few years later. It is a memory that I have in common with many people who grow up in poverty. It is a memory of a basket of food being delivered to our family by a group of men that we did not know, who were members of a church that we did not attend.
My mother had skimped on groceries that month, lots of rice and beans, in an effort to save money so my brother and I might have Christmas presents. The day that basket of food arrived, I can remember looking at each item with a sense of awe and anticipation that to this day still brings tears to my eyes. But in that basket was one item that would change my life forever: a can of mandarin oranges.
That simple, small can of mandarin oranges probably cost less than a quarter, but please understand that in 1970s in the Missouri Ozarks, tropical fruit, canned or not, was rare and special. To be completely truthful, none of us had ever seen anything like it before.
Because that can of oranges was so special, my mother placed it in the kitchen cabinet to be saved for a very special occasion. At that time, I had no idea what that little gift would mean to my life.
For years, that can of oranges sat in the kitchen cabinet of the many different homes we lived in, being saved for an occasion that was special enough to justify its consumption. Between my brother and me, the oranges became an often-discussed symbol of the Christmas where the food had miraculously appeared.
As life would have it, the can eventually become bloated and had to be thrown away, leaving not only a hole on the shelf, but also in my sense of security.
But one afternoon, after lamenting my loss for days, my mother pulled from her grocery bag a new can of mandarin oranges. This time she instructed that those oranges were not to go into the kitchen cabinet, but were to be put into my desk drawer as a reminder of the high cost of a lack of education.
To date, that can of oranges and many of its successors have been in every desk I have called my own from that day forward. They were there when I graduated from high school. They were there for my college years. They were there when, after graduation, I could not find a job and spent my days unloading trucks and my nights sending out resumes.
Now that I have achieved more than I ever believed possible for a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks, that can of oranges has become more than a symbol of education and escaping poverty, it has become my daily reminder of the responsibility to serve and give back just as the men who delivered that basket of food to a poor family that Christmas four decades ago.