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potato pancakes
Managing volunteers is very much like attending a life university in which there are classes on leadership, psychology, history, arts, health, philosophy, science and sometimes when you get lucky enough, quantum physics. We not only learn from our volunteers, but also each other, our clients, and our staff. No wonder we brush off the day-to-day hard stuff. We’re here to learn and grow.

Sometimes, that learning is tiny, almost imperceptible like a diamond lying in the dust under our feet until a shaft of sunlight illuminates the sparkle and only then, we stop to pick it up and turn it over in our hand, enthralled by the worth of such a tiny object.

Dot was a snip of a woman, outliving her husband by years, childless, left alone with her money and an emptying change purse of friends. She came to the hospice care center, her mind and demands intact and she could speak about the service aboard cruise lines as I could tell you where to find the best deal on hot dogs. She came with a short list of foods she would eat and an even longer list of those she would not. It was challenging for the volunteers who cooked in the kitchen and I tried to help them as much as possible to not become discouraged by difficult demands and critiques.

One morning after hearing the food stories of the previous day, I noticed that potato pancakes were on Dot’s “will eat” list and I thought of my deceased grandmother who had made them from scratch. Surely, I reasoned, scratch potato pancakes would calm Dot’s critical tongue, so I tied on a ruffled apron and got to work. I fancied myself on an episode of Iron Chef and put my heart and soul into 3 perfectly cooked pancakes. Feeling flush with satisfaction, I covered them with the tenderness of a new mother and brought them down to her room. She was looking out the window as I knocked.

“Good morning,” I chirped as she fixed me with eyes of steel. “I have something special for you, Dot.”

“What is it?” she growled, a big cat cornered in our prettily decorated trap.

I gently removed the cover, exposing my precious gift as I approached her tray table. “Potato pancakes, I made them just for you,” I said, breathless, waiting for that appreciative look I’d come to crave.

Dot looked at me then down at the plate. She inspected the pancakes as though they were secretly holding explosives and then she looked back at me. “Take them away,” she said with a wave of her hand.”Everybody with any sense knows you put black pepper in potato pancakes.” With that her gaze turned to the window again. I was dismissed.

Crushed like a flower beneath the stampeding herd, I headed back to the kitchen and scraped the three chef worthy pancakes into the garbage. I continued my day, the sting of rejection clouding my happiness.

I packaged that experience and unwrapped it later at home, letting my thoughts go anywhere they wanted. Why was she so ornery? Why couldn’t she just acknowledge my gift for what it was? Why did this hurt? Why do I bother?

Then, a prick of sunlight set itself on the dusty diamond. I began to ask myself these questions: Why did I assume she wanted those pancakes without my asking? Why did I cook them for her in the first place? Why, if I wanted to be of service, was this about me and my feelings?

From that day on, I tried to be better at focusing on the client and by extension, any volunteer or friend or family member or staff member instead of myself. I began to ask more questions and listen less to my voice. I began to free myself from personalizing everything.

When I would help out in the kitchen and take an order from a patient, I would ask them, “how do you want that prepared?” It’s amazing how many ways you can prepare toast, for instance-white, wheat, rye, pumpernickel, lightly toasted, toasted dark, dry or with butter or olive oil, whole or cut into two or four, rectangular or triangle-shaped, with or without jelly or peanut butter or honey or chocolate or maybe hummus. But the point was to give the person what they wanted without making them feel like a burden or without a self congratulating experience.

I have been fortunate over the years to be humbled again and again, especially at times when I started to think that I just knew more than everybody else.

Humility is one vastly underrated quality. It instills a sense of peace and curiosity and just might make someone like Dot feel a heck of a lot less captured.

And oh, I now make potato pancakes with black pepper in them, because everybody knows that’s the way you do it.