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More Angel Than Milkman

Even though Joe had next to nothing himself, he saw everyone around him as generous and good.

A friendly milkman teaches Rosemary Marbach that God provides.

For the third time that morning, I opened the refrigerator. I don’t know what I was expecting to find inside. Cheez Whiz, Kool-Aid and Jell-O pudding, like other kids had? Not in my house.

We had orange blocks of cheese and milk made from powder, all with “U.S. Government” stamped on the label, reminding us who the food really belonged to.

Not us. Nothing was yours unless you paid for it, and there was very little my family could afford.

“Rosemary, close the door,” my mother said. “You’re wasting energy.”

I sighed and shut the door. Mom never worried about all the things we didn’t have. “The Lord will provide” was her answer to everything. Each time we lost another house, another chance in another town, she had faith God would make everything all right.

“Yeah, right,” I grumbled, plopping myself down at the table. I didn’t trust God to provide anything here in Ashtabula, Ohio, any more than he’d provided anywhere else. At 9 years old, I’d learned not to trust anyone. I didn’t know how Mom could, either.

Didn’t she remember how the man who offered to fix our pipes stole from her? Or how the pipes broke again a week later? Hadn’t my father left her with eight kids to take care of on her own? How could she trust God when everyone let us down?

My angry thoughts were interrupted by gravel spraying outside. There was a screech of brakes and a backfire that echoed like a rifle shot. I ran to the window to see who’d made such an entrance.

Out front was the sorriest milk truck I’d ever seen, shuddering and wheezing before rattling to a final stop. I wondered if it had just died in front of our house, unable to make the last few feet to the scrap yard up the street. The faded red letters on the side read Joe Torma—Your Milkman.

The truck door slid open and out stepped what looked like a giant in big black boots and a green stained mechanic’s jumpsuit too short for his legs. He wore thick glasses and a cap that looked like he lived, breathed and went fishing in it. He took it off and smoothed his silver hair flat against his forehead.

“Hey, Et? You there?” the man called.

“You know him?” I asked.

“He’s the church janitor,” Mom said. “Mrs. McCarthy introduced me. Come out and meet him. And don’t stare.”

Don’t stare? That wasn’t going to be easy. Joe Torma seemed to bend down right out of the sky to shake my hand. His hand was big as a baseball glove and felt just as leathery. Even more stunning, he was missing some fingers! “Well, who do we have here?” he said. “Don’t be shy, young lady. I’m Joe.”

He stuck his glasses in his pocket, revealing blue eyes that almost sparkled in the sun, and flapped my arm up and down hard.

“Glorious day, isn’t it, Et?” Joe said, grinning. He’d lost a few teeth as well. “Got a busy schedule today, but I wanted to drop off some milk for your family.”

Mom started to protest, but Joe stopped her cold. “Can’t sell it after it expires anyway, but it’s still good. My family has all we need.” He dropped a hand on my shoulder. I could feel the knuckles where his fingers stopped and wondered how he’d lost them. War wound? Shark attack? Chain saw accident? Anything was possible with a man like this! “You look like a strong girl,” he said. “Can you give me a hand?”

I followed him into the truck without a word. The inside was even more dilapidated than the outside. The backseat looked to be made entirely of electrical tape. Clothespins hung on a white string inside the front window, holding notes Joe had written to himself, receipts, reminders, prayers. “Yep,” Joe said. “The whole truck’s held together by clothespins.” He wasn’t kidding.

Joe pulled two crates of milk bottles from the back of the truck and stacked them at my feet. “Lookie here,” said Joe. “Got some sour cream, too. Your mom could use that, no?” He pushed another crate toward me. “And cottage cheese—good for your growing bones.”

I looked warily at the crates. I wasn’t going to fall for this. Joe might say these things were a gift, but nothing came for free. Trusting people to help just meant you’d be let down and humiliated when the time came to pay up. Like the time my whole class went to a Girl Scout Brownie party. My teacher assured me everyone was invited, but when I put on my coat she stopped me at the door. “Your family didn’t pay,” she said in front of everyone. “You can’t go.”

Or the time in Pennsylvania when Mom thought she found a good school for all us kids to go to on scholarship, until the principal called me into his office one morning to demand tuition. “I’m tired of you people thinking this is a free ride,” he snapped. I wanted to sink into the floor. Free ride, I thought. Yeah, right. If there was one thing I knew, it was that nothing came for free.

Joe pushed the crates closer. Cottage cheese, ricotta, yogurt and sour cream. “Go on,” he said. “I’ve got all I need already.”

I picked up a crate. Something about Joe Torma made me trust him.

Joe stopped by at least once a week after that. Sometimes he brought day-old doughnuts or bread from the local pastry shop, or fruits and vegetables from Kroger’s. Even though Joe had next to nothing himself, he saw everyone around him as generous and good—and he had a way of inspiring them to live up to his expectations.

When somebody got a new stove, Joe suggested they give the old one to us, like it was only natural. “They have all they need,” he explained to me as he carried it into our kitchen. “They’re glad to share what they don’t.” Joe didn’t make me feel ashamed to accept what he brought us, or worried he was going to demand something in return we couldn’t give. Joe never let me down.

Now when I went to our refrigerator, I felt rich. The bread was smudged with powder from the bakery’s leftover jelly doughnuts. We still didn’t have Kool-Aid or Jell-O pudding. But what we had was ours, no strings attached. I learned to trust Joe and to let other people help us. Maybe I could learn to trust God as well. Maybe God gave me Joe for that reason.

We lived in Ohio a year before we lost our lease. But as we drove away, I wasn’t thinking about what I’d lost. I was thinking how I could give to others, and teach them the lesson Joe Torma taught me. That God would provide, through people like Joe. And maybe, someday, through people like me.

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