Ripples of Generosity

This Christmas season it was my son, Andrew, who reminded me that one of the truly beautiful gifts of Christmas is the gift of generosity. But to truly understand the depth of his simple gift, you must come to understand that it started with the gift of a perfect stranger, a gift that was given nearly seventy years ago, at the height of the Great Depression.

In the summer of 1985, my parents and I went to visit their respective families near East Chicago, Indiana. During that time, Daddy and I, along with his brother Hallie, drove out to the area around Cedar Lake, where they had lived for a time in the late 1930s. “I want you to promise me that you will never forget where you come from,” Daddy told me as we started our walking tour of their old neighborhood.

They showed me the rundown, two-room house that was home to their mother and her thirteen children. They told me how their father had left her alone in the middle of the Depression after moving the whole family to Indiana from Kentucky in search of work. Left alone with a large family to support, my grandmother and her oldest daughter went to work, leaving the older children to mind the younger ones. Daddy and Hallie missed a year of grammar school because they were offered work hauling coal for one of local men which allowed them to earn extra money to buy food. Their family subsisted on navy bean soup and if they were lucky enough to have a little extra money, they could usually buy a hambone with some scraps of meat still on it to add a little flavor to it.

As they reminisced, Daddy told me the story of the year his family could not afford anything at all for Christmas. There was just no money to spare, even for a little meat for dinner. On Christmas Day, there came a knock on the door and there on the stoop was a man from the Salvation Army, with a ham, some vegetables, and a huge bag of gumdrops for the children to share. They feasted like kings that Christmas, because of the kindness of strangers. Daddy never forgot that kindness. He grew up, married his childhood sweetheart, had a large family of his own and retold that story again and again. He gave every year to help those who found themselves in the same dire straights that he himself remembered so vividly.

I was only twelve that summer in 1985, but seeing that tiny house and knowing how frigid Chicago area winters can be, Daddy’s family history lesson left a deep and lasting impression. As soon as I started working at fifteen, I often sought out the Salvation Army kettles for myself. I never forgot the kindness of those strangers from my father’s childhood and so their generosity rippled on into a second generation. I grew up, married and have my own children now. I have often told them the story of my father’s family, so that they will also understand their own family history. Even though Andrew is only nine and Eugene, who is named after Daddy, is only five, they too can now tell the story of that Christmas feast, which to them seems like so very long ago.

This past weekend, I had to take my boys to buy new boots for the winter. In the midst of a divorce and only working part-time which allows me to be home for them when they come home from school, I was being very careful about what I was spending in the shoe store. Andrew, well aware of the fact that I was pinching pennies, opened his own wallet and offered me the money he still had from his birthday back in June. I gave him a hug and told him that no, that money was his to spend on himself however he wanted, and that I would take of things such as boots. I found myself with new appreciation for my grandmother, as we are a long way from the harsh times that she faced.

As we left the store, I stopped to pull out some money to put in the Salvation Army kettle outside and only having one dollar, I gave it to Eugene to put in and told Andrew he could do it next time. He smiled and pulled out his wallet, saying, “No, Mom it’s okay, I’ve got my own money.” He rifled though his wallet and pulled out a twenty. I gently pointed out that he had pulled out a twenty and not just a dollar and he said, “Yeah, I know Mom, but if I’ve had this twenty dollars this long and forgot about it, I don’t really need it that much. They can use it to help somebody who really needs it.” I was speechless and I finally managed to say, “Okay, that’s up to you. It’s your money so you get to do what you want to do with it.”

As we walked outside, they ran up to the kettle and I saw that Andrew had carefully folded the bill so that the denomination did not show. He waited while Eugene put in the dollar I had given him and then flashed me a huge smile and with his eyes dancing with joy much the way Daddy’s used to, he put that twenty dollar bill in the kettle, wished the bell-ringer a Merry Christmas and came running back to me. “Maybe some kid will get something nice for Christmas, like Grandpa did,” he told me as he skipped back to the car.

And so the kindness of strangers ripples on into a third generation and most likely beyond. Andrew and Eugene will grow up telling and retelling the story of a grandfather they know only through old pictures, my childhood memories, and some old cassette tapes of poems that Daddy made for me when I was Andrew’s age. The kindness of strangers ripples on through my siblings, their children, and their grandchildren and through my father’s siblings, only ten of who lived to adulthood, their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Some seventy years ago, someone gave just a little bit, at a time when the entire nation was in the grip of financial strife and worried about war. That little bit has rippled outward exponentially ever since. I have often wondered, how many other families did that man from the Salvation Army visit that Christmas so long ago? How many of those other families tell and retell their stories of kindness and generosity in the same ways that my father did, carrying that generosity down through the generations?

These past few months, as I have struggled to come to terms with moving back into my parents’ home, bringing with me my sons and our dog, I find myself surrounded by memories of my father. Daddy passed away twenty years ago this past March and yet at times it is as though these walls are whispering to me, calling up all the old stories he used to tell. Even now as I write this, I am sitting at his old roll-top desk with his photograph looking back at me, smiling broadly, with a playful gleam that I had seen so many times in his hazel colored eyes, especially at this time of year.

This Christmas, as I carefully weigh the things my children want against the things I know they need, it was my child who reminded me that the greatest gifts in life are the not the ones that you receive, but the ones that you give away. You see, even if they seem so very small at the time, the ripples of generosity continue outward, well beyond the reaches of time, changing the lives of those not yet born and making this world a better place, if not in our time than, perhaps, in our grandchildren’s time.

For more information on the Salvation Army see their website:

On Coming Home

Photo taken at an A.A. meeting at the childhood home of Bill W – founder of A.A.
John and I are bottom left and center.

This is my favorite time of year. I feel most at home and most grounded during the crush of the holidays. Now, you’re probably thinking that I need to double up on my therapy appointments because I have completely lost touch with reality. You’re probably saying to yourself, “Who feels grounded when there’s all that running around to do and stuff to get done?”

For starters, there’s Shopping Day, that Monday or Tuesday before Thanksgiving when I get to go fighting through the overcrowded food store. As I make my way through the throngs, I wonder why in the hell all these people can’t shop in some other damn store. I search for the right Butterball turkey – frozen not fresh, the right stuffing bread, the walnuts, the Jell-O, and the right pie fillings. Of course, by the time I get to Aisle 10, they are out of the pie crust mix that I like, so I can either try another one and pray that it browns nicely or resort to the frozen crust with the funny aftertaste. After the sticker shock at the register, it’s home to fit all this food into the refrigerator.

Next comes my favorite, Baking Day, that Wednesday before Thanksgiving when it’s time to make all the pies, the cookies, and the Jell-O molds. Mom and I spend about a half an hour digging out the faded, flour encrusted recipe cards and the bits and pieces of crumbling newsprint that contains the apple pie recipe. It’s okay that a chunk is missing because Mom remembers what that part said, I hope. There’s a flurry of chopping nuts, slicing apples, rolling out the piecrusts, and then mixing the pumpkin pie filling while the apple pie bakes. The smells of chocolate chip cookies, apples, cinnamon, pumpkin, cloves, and nutmeg fill the house as dishes fill the sink. All the while the songs of the Rolling Stones fill the air singing that Time Is On My Side, although I seriously doubt that Mick Jagger and friends ever had to pull off three pies, four batches of cookies, and two Jell-O molds in one day, if ever.

But somehow, in the midst of all that frenzied cooking, I find a deep peace. I breathe in all those smells of home and history as I watch Mom teach my sons how to roll out the scraps of pie dough with sugar, cinnamon, and butter. I remember the thrill when I was first old enough to use the rolling pin and the sharp silver paring knife to cut the dough into little cinnamon rolls. I’d take those homemade cinnamon rolls over Cinnabon any day. Through all of the craziness, I have the sense of doing it all out of love and remember that for over fifty years Mom has also done this all out of love and she did it for more people than I’ve ever fed.

After all the work of Baking Day comes the rigidly choreographed Thanksgiving Ballet. That carefully orchestrated dance of stuffing, turkey, vegetables, biscuits, and the sweet potatoes with the little marshmallows on top that we only make once a year. We count on our fingers, “One to two, two to three, three to – no wait, one to two…” marking the time to see what goes in the oven or on the stove when. By some miracle, it all gets done at the same time and makes it on the table hot. The three days of preparation were worth all the aggravation. We sit down to a fabulous feast and within an hour we’re all swearing that we’ll never eat again, at least until its time for pie.

For two days the house is full of warm smells and warmer memories and yet before we’ve even polished off the last of the leftovers, it’s time to start Christmas shopping. The malls have been transformed into wintry wonderlands of brightly decked, non-religious, politically correct corridors of retail hell. It’s time again to battle the parking lots and crowded stores. Time to navigate the hoards of stressed out, soul starved, penny-pinching zombies all with the same mantra of, “Gotta find it. Gotta get it. Gotta wrap it. Gotta get it all done.” The fabled Christmas spirit is nowhere to be found, unless it’s the Ghost Of Sale Ended Yesterday, or worse yet, the Ghost Of Limit One when you just have to have two. It’s no wonder that we put brandy in the eggnog or in some cases, eggnog in the brandy.

But what the retailers have forgotten is the season of Advent. This is the time set aside to quietly prepare for the birth of our Savior. This was a season my parents never overlooked. After the Thanksgiving china was safely in pantry and the linens were washed and put away, Mom would pull out a little round table. She would iron the red tablecloth to put on it and her favorite statue of Mary would come down off the fireplace mantle to take her place in the center of our Advent wreath with it’s purple and pink candles. Over the years, poor Mary has been knocked over, dropped, and broken a few times. She has been lovingly glued back together but she is a little scarred, a little cracked and a little chipped, kind of like me.

On the first night of Advent, we would gather in the dining room, lined up oldest to youngest. Dad would bless the wreath with holy water and light the first candle. He would read from his worn green bible, then lead us through the Angelus, the Our Father, and the Doxology. The readings from the prophet Isaiah and the Gospel of Luke became the golden threads of our Christmas tapestries. The smell of candle wax and paper matches still brings me back to those quiet gatherings of a big and busy family. Every night for four weeks, we gathered and stood shoulder to shoulder in prayer. We set aside everything we were doing for just a short time. After all these years, I can still hear Dad’s big booming voice, “The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary…” and Mom’s softer echo leading us in response, “And she conceived of the Holy Spirit. Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee…” And the Lord was there with all of us.

No family is perfect and if the picture I’m painting sounds too good to be real, it’s only because this was our family at it’s best. We argued and fought like every other family. There were personality clashes and temper tantrums and drama too. We didn’t all grow up to be saints either. What I did grow up with was a solid grasp of my parents’ faith, not the just the religious practices, but the underlying faith. When I was in my twenties, I walked away from coming to church and yet every year I returned to my religious roots, at least for Christmas Eve. Little by little, I rediscovered the vital role that my faith plays in my life. Religion gave me the words when I found that I no longer knew what to say to God. It provided me with the road map for the long, long road back home to His table.

These past few years have been a roller coaster ride of doubt, fear, illness – first my son’s and then my own, and even my divorce. What brought me through it all wasn’t a Thanksgiving feast or even the love that went into preparing it. It wasn’t a pretty sweater or even the kind thoughts that went into buying it. What brought me through it all was the gift of Advent. It was remembering what it meant to set aside everything else and spend time in quiet, stillness, and prayer. It was remembering what it meant to come home.

During all the upheaval, I had a constant longing to be home, which led me back into the church. At the time, I couldn’t really have explained why I came back but there was a deep need to be there. I came back to Sunday Mass and eventually started coming almost every day. Daily Mass was so quiet and so peaceful. I was there with my two little boys, who were neither quiet nor peaceful. There were many days when I was saying, “Okay Lord, You know I must be completely out of my mind. Why am I even here? To torture myself or to torture them? I didn’t hear a word of the Mass!”

Without fail, every time I had one of those days, someone would come up to me, often a total stranger, and say to me, “We’re so glad you’re here. Keep coming and keep bringing the boys. We love seeing a mom bring her kids. It’s not easy but you’re doing the right thing.”

My family has always loved me and supported me. Now I had added a second family, a spiritual one. One that told me over and over that is was okay if I was struggling just to be there. They reminded me over and over that they were there for me and I gradually learned to rely on them for prayers and support.

My dearest friend John and I have had many conversations over the years about our faith struggles and our individual arguments with God. Most recently, as he has worked through the Twelve Steps of A.A., we have been talking about accepting help from the people God places around us. We have also spent hours discussing God’s will versus our own will and what it means to surrender oneself to God’s will. That kind of surrender requires a great deal of faith and trust. Faith I’m working on but I’m not so good with trust.

“I just wish I knew what He wanted from me. What am I supposed to do now? God isn’t speaking to me. There’s no text messages, no email, no nothing. I want a three-foot flashing neon sign. I want my burning bush,” I complain while John listens patiently and then explains to me yet again that I just have to trust in God’s care for me. Again with this trust thing!

John came to visit me a few months ago and we attended an A.A. meeting together, my first. We walked into a crowded church basement that very quickly was standing room only. The keynote speaker described her experiences of first coming to a meeting.

“I didn’t know why I kept coming back. I just did,” she said in an emotion-choked voice. “I needed to come and the people around me kept telling me to keep coming. ‘Just keep coming back. It’s okay, you’ll get it eventually.’ And I learned to let those people love me until I could learn to love myself.”

I was sitting there in that packed church basement crying and nodding with every word she said. Afterwards, over dinner, I told John how deeply she had touched me and I told him about all those people at daily Mass telling me to keep coming back and that I was doing the right thing by bringing the boys.

“Now Sweetie,” he said in that ‘I-love-you-Honey-but…’ tone of voice, “I thought you said God wasn’t speaking to you. Maybe you just aren’t listening. You know, like when one of your kids puts his hands over his ears and singsongs ‘I CAN’T HEAR YOU!’ and you know damn good and well that he heard you but he just doesn’t like what you said…”
While my initial response to that wonderful insight was something like, “Oh shut up!” I have to admit that my experiences that evening led me to look at my entire faith journey with different eyes. Everything has taken on a new significance for me: from those long-ago nights around the Advent wreath to the newly formed bonds of faith, friendship, and community. Learning to love myself “as is” is proving to be an extremely difficult lesson in acceptance and surrender. But I’m learning to trust that God has surrounded me with the people who will love me until I learn to love myself. There have been times over the past year when I have seen the face of God in someone I barely know and then I know, without a doubt, that I have finally found my way home.

So this holiday season, I don’t just wish you a Merry Christmas. I wish you a quiet and blessed Advent full of the peace, hope, joy, and love of a depth that only God can give. I pray that you never forget the way home. I hope you remember me this Christmas when the church is packed full of those people who don’t show up the rest of the year. When they get the closer parking spaces while you’re parked two blocks away in sub-zero wind chills and they have seats while you’re standing in the back, have patience. Remember that we are all His family and every journey home happens one baby step at a time.

Luke 15:20 – The Prodigal Son – Welcome Home!

“So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him.”