‘Uncle Walt, I’m going to use my stimulus check for college in two years.”
Pastor Walter Mitty had driven up to Manitowoc after the Easter service Sunday and was eating dinner with his sister-in-law, Susan, and two nephews, Brian and Matt.
The conversation got around to the $1,400 stimulus checks. “We’re not desperate,” Susan began. “With what I make working at the bakery and the money I receive from the death benefit from Social Security, we’re OK. Besides, Herman had a good job at Oriental Milling so the house is paid for. But still, the money will help. I’m going to put it in my checking account as cushion.”
“Mom won’t let me spend all of it,” said Matt pretending to be mad at his mother. “She made me put some of it in the bank, so I only have a hundred to spend on myself.”
“You poor boy,” said Mitty feigning sympathy. “What can you get for a hundred bucks these days?”
Matt laughed then got serious. “So Uncle Walt, what are you going to do with your $1,400?”
“I don’t know, Matt,” he replied. “I don’t need it for anything in particular, so I’m not sure.”
Pastor Walt went to bed early Sunday night, feeling the letdown from the stress of Holy Week responsibilities. His corner of the basement was known as Uncle Walt’s Room because it was where he slept during the year he had taken off to help Susan take care of his brother Herman who was slowly dying of cancer.
Mitty slept till 8, Monday morning, said goodbye to the nephews, stopped in at the Deutsche Backerei where Susan was working, bought two glazed croissants and a Berliner and drove out to Point Beach State Park.
Point Beach — a thousand acres of woods and two miles of shoreline on Lake Michigan — is a kind of holy place for Mitty. When he was a kid, he and Herman would hike the trails pretending they were Indians. Now it’s a place where he gets his feet on the ground and his heart in the right place.
When he arrived at the parking lot overlooking the lake, it was raining, so he parked the car and had a glazed croissant and the coffee he had picked up at the coffee shop in Schroeder’s Department Store in Two Rivers.
The sound of the rain on the roof of his car was soothing. The lake was calm. A few seagulls flew by, but everything else was still. The parking lot was empty, so he felt like he had the woods and the lake all to himself.
Sometimes he found himself staring at the huge expanse of water for half an hour, transfixed by the immensity of it, a powerful part of nature that had been there for hundreds of thousands of years before he was born at Holy Family Hospital and would be there hundreds of thousands of years after his ashes became part of that nature he loved.
“So Uncle Walt, what are you going to do with your stimulus check?”
Mitty started munching on his second pastry, this time the Berliner. Sitting by the lake with the rain running down his windshield somehow made him think about that question differently than when his nephew asked him about it.
He didn’t need the money. That was one thing he knew for sure.
The thought of buying more things for himself felt like hedonistic gluttony.
If not for himself, then for whom? Michael would sometimes mention tikkun olam, the idea in Judaism that it is a duty to heal the world. “The world certainly needs healing,” thought Mitty.
He finished his Berliner, took another sip of coffee and felt a sense of cozy contentment as he looked out over the lake.
“OK, so it’s my duty to participate in healing the world,” thought Mitty. “But how? Do I fight gun violence by giving $1,400 to the Brady organization to promote gun regulation? Or maybe I should give it all to help pay for reparations in Evanston.”
Mitty liked the feeling of being small, of being an almost insignificant part of the lake and the woods, of definitely not being the center of the universe.
“So what good would my donation do relative to enormity of the racial and economic injustices in our country?” He looked at the lake and laughed at the thought of taking a gallon of water out of the lake to prevent it from rising anymore. A drop out of the bucket.”
And then he thought of Michael again who practiced tithing — 10 percent of your income according to the Torah as a way of giving thanks for a “bountiful harvest.”
He then thought about Zaphne and Bernie Rolvaag trying to keep their heads above water during the pandemic tidal wave. He understood why his sister-in-law would squirrel away the money as a cushion to use if the water heater broke down or her car needed major repairs.
So the check was meant to be a stimulus, right? But how many books could one man buy from Bernie’s bookstore or how many macchiatos from Zaphne could he drink in a year?
He had prayed about it, but the only answer he heard from God was the word “yes.”
As Pastor Mitty gazed back on the one quadrillion gallons of water there in front of him, he concluded that whatever he decided to do with this monetary windfall would be a drop in the lake, so to speak, and that he was in a way burdened with the uneasy freedom to decide how to use it.
And he decided to do a reverse tithe. “That’s it,” he thought, “10 percent for myself, 10 percent to spend on local merchants and the rest to give away.”
Tom Holmes writes a column for our sister publication, the Forest Park Review.