A Sweep of Gratitude
by Lynda Elliott
Last year about this time, I encountered the most amazing man. Meeting him was the turning point in my holiday season. It all began when my friend, Carolyn, and I met for breakfast in downtown Little Rock on the Friday after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year. Red and green lights twinkled around the door and windows of the Satellite Café on Kavanaugh Street. Jingle Bells was playing over the radio on the counter.
Even at 8 a.m. there was a waiting line at the café. Customers stood in groups, chattering and rubbing their cold hands together, waiting to share a hot breakfast and more conversation before swarming into the stores for bargains. I could feel the cheery excitement of the holidays, but it was laced with the usual stress that spoils the season with layers of anxiety and fatigue.
Finally, Carolyn and I were seated by a large window. Colorful ads spilled from the newspaper someone had left on our table. As I folded the newspaper, I noticed that it had begun to drizzle outside. “Oh, no,” I groaned. “We’re going to be dashing around in the rain. Shopping will be messy today!” I sighed and picked up a menu.
“Every year,” responded Carolyn, “I promise myself that I won’t get into a frenzy the next year, but I always find myself stressed to the hilt all over again. It’s crazy!”
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed an elderly man on the other side of the window, making his way carefully down the sidewalk. He was carrying a black umbrella in his left hand, sheltering himself from the rain, and balancing several brooms on his right shoulder. Beneath a thin gray coat, he was dressed in a plaid flannel shirt and brown pants. A striped ski cap protected his head and thick glasses covered his eyes like a shield. As I watched, he smiled and stepped politely aside to allow a couple to rush by.
“Who’s that?” I asked Carolyn.
“That’s Melvin. He’s been walking these streets for years and years. I’ve heard he put several of his children through college selling those brooms. He’s almost blind and in his seventies, but he keeps on keeping on. I don’t know how he does it. Everybody buys brooms from him.”
Just then Melvin ducked through the doorway into the restaurant. Waiting customers smiled and cleared the way for him. A few shook his hand. Others patted his shoulder as he moved quietly from table to table, smiling and asking, “Do you need a broom today?” Several patrons bought from him and rose to stack their new brooms near the doorway. Suddenly the Holy Spirit spoke to me: Interview him.
Instantly I was energized. When the elderly gentleman approached our table, I made a purchase, then said, “Melvin, I’m a writer, and I wonder if you might let me interview you. I have a hunch that your life is very special.”
Melvin paused and thought for a moment. Then he smiled. “I’ve been asked to do a lot of interviews and I’ve always said no. But this time I’m going to say yes.”
We set a time to meet at the café the very next Friday morning for breakfast. I felt unexpected anticipation, almost as if Melvin might be bringing me good tidings of great joy. After all, it was the season for it!
Exactly a week later, when Melvin and I met, it wasn’t raining as before, but it was windy and cold. Melvin shook my hand at the front door. “It’s a blessing to get a good, hot breakfast on a cold morning, isn’t it?”
We both ordered the Satellite special — fried eggs, sausage, bacon, grits, biscuits, and jelly. Somehow it seemed like a morning for extravagant eating and celebration!
Melvin took a sip of hot coffee, then sat straight and tall in his chair. “There’s one thing I need to make very clear about this interview,” he announced. “I’m a Christian and I love Jesus. That is the most important thing. My mother died when I was born. I never knew my daddy. My grandmother raised me and she was a wonderful person. I’ve been married to one lady for 45 years. Jesus has always been good to me. I owe everything I am and have to Him. I’m a thankful man.”
This is a man with a message, I thought, grabbing my pen and notebook from my purse.
When the waitress brought our overloaded plates, I asked Melvin about his eyesight. “I was born this way,” he replied. “I can see a little bit, but my wife, Dorothy, was born totally blind. People didn’t think we could make it, but we’ve raised five children. She was even the first black woman to get a music degree from the university. The Lord has always given us work. Before she retired, she taught music to handicapped children. Me, I’m 72 and still working. I can’t see much, but I don’t feel handicapped because God helps me do whatever I need to do.”
The words of Paul echoed in my mind: “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:13). With his poor eyesight, his love for Jesus, and his determined spirit, Melvin was living proof of that verse.
Enthusiastic and eager to talk, he wrapped his hands around his cup of coffee. “I’ve been happy in life because I made up my mind when I was a very young man that I wanted to help people. Life’s not about what somebody will do for you. It’s all about what you can do for somebody else. I love God and I love people.”
Suddenly I was curious. This dear man could hardly see. Selling brooms on the streets of Little Rock could not be financially lucrative. Melvin was the one who needed help! “So how do you help people?” I asked frankly.
He sat up proudly. “Every morning, unless it’s under 30 degrees or snowing, I wait on the corner for my bus and pray that God will send somebody that day who needs my help. Then I watch to see whom He sends across my path. Even a smile or a kind word helps people in this rough old world. I feel like I’m successful in life because God always sends people I can help.”
As he buttered a biscuit and covered it with jelly, I began to feel as if the coffee shop was holy ground. This man had it all figured out. He was calm and secure. I could feel the peace of the Holy Spirit coming from within him, even in the midst of a busy coffee shop. He wasn’t fretful or anxious like the rest of us...well, like me! Had I actually complained about the opportunity to go Christmas shopping? He navigated the crowds and the weather every day without complaint.
“Has anybody ever helped you along your way?” I asked.
Melvin paused and smiled. “Yes, once somebody gave me a new pair of shoes. But that’s not the important thing. What’s most important is, ‘Whom have I helped?’ People keep saying, ‘Melvin, you’re an old man. Why do you keep selling those brooms?’ I tell them these brooms are my lifeline to people, and I’ll keep carrying and selling them as long as I can.”
“Tell me about your children.”
“Dorothy and I put two of them through college. Two died and one is not as close to the Lord as he should be. But prayer — that will make the difference. Jesus suffered for us, so why shouldn’t I suffer over my child?” Then he added confidently, “I believe my child will return to the Lord.”
“How would you like your children to remember you?” I asked after my new friend took one last bite of fried eggs. A tear slid down from behind his thick glasses. “I want my children to remember that I was always there when they needed me, that I was a family man. I want them to remember that I loved Jesus, and that I never let them go hungry. I want them to believe that I was a good man.”
I reached across the table to touch his hand. “I know they’ll always remember you exactly like that.”
He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his eyes. Then he looked straight at me. “You know, you should never expect somebody else to do more for your children than you do. I’ve been there every time my children needed me, just like Jesus has always been there when I needed Him.”
“Melvin,” I said as the waitress appeared with our check, “the world would be filled with happy children if they all had fathers like you.”
He gestured toward his brooms propped by the door. “I don’t worry and I’m not afraid of anything. I have peace of mind. I’m grateful for whatever God does. If I sell one broom, I’m thankful. If I sell ten brooms, I’m thankful. God has shown me that my family will always have everything we need. It’s not about money. It’s about God providing. I always tell Him, ‘Whatever You want is what I want.’”
The strong impact of gratitude on Melvin’s life, and on those around him, was impossible to miss. There was much he could have complained about. Instead, he chose the path of gratitude and service. As Melvin and I hugged and parted ways that December morning, I knew my holiday would be more focused — and more filled with gratitude — because of him. Once again, God had sent Melvin somebody to help!
And as I pulled out of the restaurant parking lot onto the holidaybusy street, I remembered my conversation with Carolyn the week before, complaining because it was raining and we had to go shopping. I had been so ungrateful. No more! By God’s grace, I was going to be intentionally grateful – like Melvin.A few weeks later, I caught a glimpse of my divine messenger, brooms over his shoulder, off on another adventure. I had no doubt he was counting his blessings and looking for the next person God was sending his way.