In "A Worn Path," Phoenix is an elderly woman who walks into town to get some medicine for her grandson. Her grandson had swallowed lye so he needs medicine periodically. Although the journey is a long, difficult journey, Phoenix manages to get there on her own. She faces difficult circumstances as an elderly African American lady trying to get some medicine for her grandson.
Phoenix does not have any money; therefore, the nurse marks the medicine as charity. She gives the medicine to Phoenix:
Arriving at her destination, the woman climbs a set of stairs and enters a doctor's office. The attendant assumes Phoenix is a charity case. The nurse replies that it is "just old Aunt Phoenix" who has come to get medicine for her grandson.
Phoenix has been before. The nurse recognizes her. No doubt, Phoenix definitely needs money. On her journey, when the white hunter drops a nickel on the ground, Phoenix scoops it up without the white hunter noticing.
When Phoenix gets to town, she goes into the doctor's office. After the nurse marks the medicine as charity, she offers Phoenix five pennies. Again, Phoenix is excited over the five pennies. She now states that she has two nickels to buy her grandson a paper windmill. She is so appreciative of the few coins.
The nurse marks the medicine as charity in her book because of Phoenix's poverty. The nurse has been instructed (by the doctor) to refrain from charging Phoenix for her grandson's medicine. The understanding is that Phoenix will have the medicine for free, as long as she can make her own way to the clinic.
Phoenix's grandson needs medicine because he swallowed lye two or three years ago, and his throat never fully healed. Sometimes, Phoenix's grandson finds it difficult to breathe, and on occasion, he experiences difficulty swallowing. Because of Phoenix's poverty, she must make the arduous journey alone, on foot.
Yet, in spite of her poverty, Phoenix is a proud woman. When the attendant offers to give her a few pennies for Christmastime, Phoenix stiffly replies that, "five pennies is a nickel." These few words quietly indicate Phoenix's inherent dignity and self-respect. Phoenix is not demanding; she just states what she needs from the attendant. Additionally, Phoenix asks for the nickel for her grandson's sake, not for her own.
She knows that she can use the new nickel with the nickel that fell out of the white hunter's pocket to purchase a toy windmill for her grandson. When we realize how much Phoenix's grandson means to her, we accept with compassion her need to ask for more, and we understand why she didn't give the hunter his nickel back.