Josh Shaffer

Columnist drives a Meals on Wheels route and commune with his Grandma

The columnist drives a Meals on Wheels route through Raleigh and invites the city to do the same. The agency feeds more than 1,300 people in Wake County daily.
The columnist drives a Meals on Wheels route through Raleigh and invites the city to do the same. The agency feeds more than 1,300 people in Wake County daily.

My Grandma Irene lived to be 94 years old, and almost until the day she died, she volunteered for Meals on Wheels – delivering spaghetti and green beans to homebound seniors.

She would often take me along when I was a boy of 8 or 9, showing me off to the shut-ins who spent lonely days watching soap operas or playing canasta. I’d hand them their low-sodium entrees and their 2-percent milk, and my Grandma would ask about their cataracts or their hypertension.

The last time I saw Grandma was in 2001, a few years before she died, and she took me at age 31 down that same route through suburban Los Angeles, where I handed out the same foil-wrapped trays of spaghetti. Only this time, Grandma was several decades older than most of her clients – still driving her little Plymouth Champ.

I mention all this because Meals on Wheels called this newspaper a few weeks ago, looking for a reporter to drive a route, and the phone got passed my way. I’d have gone anyway, but the name Meals on Wheels automatically conjures up Irene Kern for me: the way she whistled constantly, the times we spent doing the Jumble at the breakfast table, the summer she taught me how to type.

So I drove to the Blair Street office on Tuesday and loaded the cooler full of bananas, milk, bread and juice – plus the insulated sack full of spaghetti and mashed potatoes – into the back of my pickup. Luckily, they gave me a map.

Meals on Wheels of Wake County serves more than 1,300 people a day, most of them older than 60 and unable to cook or shop for groceries, about half of them living at or below the poverty line. About half its funding comes from the federal government, and most of the other half comes from private donations. In a year, the agency uses 2,220 volunteers, and it could always use more.

My trip started in Caraleigh Mills off South Saunders Street, where I met Lottie Pipkin, who is 96, born in 1919.

“She’s seen a lot of presidents,” joked her daughter, Jean Myers.

Lottie lives in sight of the historic cotton mill and its tall brick smokestack, and also the boarding house that kept workers when her neighborhood was largely a mill village. Lottie worked in that mill long before it closed, long before it turned into condos. The family used to have pigs in the yard, and children would make swings out of fibers from the mill. Lottie would make cracklin’ corn bread and sweet potato biscuits.

The day I knocked, she called to me from the bedroom and asked that I leave lunch in the kitchen. I asked if she needed anything else, and she told me no. That 10-second gesture took less effort than mailing a postcard. And yet Lottie’s daughter told me later, “Mama was so impressed with you.” Imagine the impression my Grandma must have made!

I drove a little further east into Walnut Terrace, which I hadn’t seen since it was a public housing barracks that always felt depressing, but has since been completely rebuilt. I especially liked that one of the streets is named Little Blues Alley.

I made several stops there and talked with Tony Robinson, who is 54 and recovering from a stroke. He uses a wheelchair and a walker to get around his apartment. He has a home-health assistant, but losing mobility on his right side makes grocery shopping impossible. He especially appreciates the milk, which he saves for his cereal.

In all, I brought lunch to seven people, and it took about 25 minutes. I saw parts of Raleigh I rarely pass through. I met people I would never encounter otherwise. And I spent a few hours, I’m pretty sure, with my Grandma’s spirit. I’ve been whistling all day.

How to help

For information on becoming a Meals on Wheels volunteer, call 919-833-1740. To donate, see