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God knows what we’ll need before we do, and
He sends just the right people just when we need them.

My parents, both Hungarian immigrants, bought a farm in Pennysylania in the mid-1920s. My father, Joseph, had worked a number of different jobs since coming to America in 1912. But he saved most of his money for a farm by working in the coal mines of West Virginia.

Both my father and my mother, Mary, had come from a rural background in the Old Country, but farming methods in America were on a larger scale and a bit different from what they were accustomed to. The first few years were especially difficult. My oldest brother, Joseph Jr., and my oldest sister, Mary, were still quite young, so my mother had to juggle helping my father on the farm and taking care of the little ones.

One day, shortly before Christmas, a man approached my father as he was working in the barnyard. He was a middle aged man with a beard that showed a few streaks of gray. He wasn’t a big man, and he wasn’t a small man. My father recalled that the fellow was wearing faded U.S. Army clothes and a large Army overcoat. Since this was less than ten years after World War I, my father assumed that he was a veteran down on his luck. The stranger quickly made it clear that he was looking for work. There was a quiet sadness to the veteran’s face, and my father felt very bad about turning him down. “I’m sorry,” my father said, “but I don’t have any money to pay you with.”

The stranger gave a soft smile and answered, “That’s all right. I’ll work for some supper.”

“Oh, I can help you there,” my father said, putting the pitchfork aside. “My name is Joseph. What’s yours?”

“Jesse,” he replied, shaking my father’s hand. He never gave a last name.

That afternoon Jesse helped my father clean the barn and feed the cows. Then he helped with the milking. After he had a chance to wash up, he sat down to dinner mother and father and the two children.

“I’m sorry our supper is so simple,” my mother apologized. “I didn’t realize this afternoon that we would be having company.”

But Jesse waved away her apology as he scooped some more potatoes and hash on his plate. “Ma’am, this is a wonderful meal. I am most grateful.”

There wasn’t room in the little house for Jesse to stay, but he said he was more than happy to sleep in the hayloft in the barn. It was clean and it was warm.

The weather turned bitter the next day with some snow mixed with freezing rain. My parents offered to let Jesse stay until the weather turned better, and he was happy to share their meals and to help with the chores.

Then the following day, misfortune arrived. My father became sick. It was probably the flu, and they really had no money for a doctor. Then my mother and the children also became ill.

My parents were quite new in that farming community, and although some of the neighbors helped out when they could, they were all in the same circumstances of trying hard to make a go of their small farms.

But now the veteran took over. He not only did the chores by himself, he did the best he could in taking care of my parents and the two children. He made soups and teas and filled hot water bottles. He cooked. Although nobody had much appetite, Jesse insisted they eat a little. He also washed clothes, and since there were only outdoor toilets at this time, he also emptied chamber pots. It was a big undertaking for anyone—especially for a stranger who had stopped by just to work for supper.

With Jesse’s care and with a little time, my parents began to recover from the flu. All this time Jesse never got sick, or at least he never let on that he did.

Christmas morning came in as a gorgeous, sunny day. When my mother got up, she noticed that there was a fresh pot of coffee on the stove. In the oven a couple apple pies were baking. The house was clean, and she noticed by the fresh milk on the table that the chores were also done. Then by the little tree they had put up for Christmas, she noticed some gifts under or near the tree. She woke up my father. “Joseph, look at this!”

There, under the tree was a doll fashioned out of corn husks. It was well done with a little red ribbon in the hair. That would be for my sister, Mary. Then there was a wooden whistle made out of a tree branch. That would be for my brother, Joe Jr. And to my father’s delight, he noticed a long, neatly woven rope that had been made out of old twine and strings. He needed a new rope down at the calf pens. And as my mother had often told Jesse about her religious upbringing in Europe and how she had missed the little village church in Hungary, Jesse had carved her a crucifix. It was about a foot tall, nicely carved, and polished with some sort of oil.

Not only had Jesse taken care of them through their time of crisis, he had also played Santa Claus to them.

“Where’s Jesse?” one of the children asked as they admired their gifts. Then my mother noticed a note with some printed words on it. It was from Jesse and it read, “Thank you very much for the suppers.”

They never saw Jesse again—but they would never forget him.

Tom Kovach writes from Park Rapids, Minnesota.

“I’ll Work for Some Supper”

by Tom Kovach
From the December 2005 Signs