In a recent podcast interview, I was asked about gifts—not the kind you hastily unwrap under the Christmas tree on December 25th, but those intangible presents that don’t fit into a box. This conversation reminded me of one of the greatest gifts my mother had given me, although I didn’t know it at the time. Its monetary value was set at 43 dollars, but to me it was priceless.
When I was 12 years old, my mother announced to my dad, younger sister, and me that she was going to organize a fair in our backyard to raise money for a local man awaiting a kidney transplant. She did not know him (I’ll call him “Mr. Smith”), nor did she possess any fundraising skills. Plus, our family was new to the Upstate New York area, making my father wonder aloud who would even attend the event.
The determination in Mom’s voice belied any hesitations or obstacles she may have foreseen. Instead, with a sparkle in her eyes, she described the various children’s games we would set up, the raffle prizes on offer, the baked goods we would sell. I hung on Mom’s every word, delighted that our yard would turn into a carnival for one day that July. I would invite my new friends, and we could enlist the help of our neighbor playmates. Exciting!
As that Saturday morning approached, my father mowed our parcel of land, set up the games, and hung signs informing visitors about parking. We were treated to a glorious summer day and were surprised by the big turnout, which was probably a result of the publicity the fair had received in the local newspaper.
Decades later, I still remember this day as one of the most joyful of my youth. I had run the Bingo table (photo below), fetched fresh water for apple bobbing, and sold raffle tickets. All the while, I was learning a lesson carefully planned by my mother, although it would take years for me to truly understand its meaning.
At the end of that day, my family and I—exhausted, yet exhilarated—sat down to discuss the highlights of the event, the large crowd that had attended, and the popularity of Mom’s Rice Krispies Treats. I don’t recall a word mentioned about the amount of money we had raised, but in my tweenager mind, the event had seemed a resounding success. I was sure Mr. Smith would soon get the kidney transplant that would save his life. It wasn’t until years later that I learned he had died while waiting for the lifesaving surgery.
A few years ago, I was going through the scrapbook from that time and came across a photo about the event that had appeared soon after in the local newspaper. The headline read: “Girls’ Fair Makes $43 for Kidney Transplant.” 43 dollars? Really? My heart sank.
I wondered how my mother had felt about our long-ago efforts. Her radiant face had been full of joy and enthusiasm that day, and I’d never heard her utter a discouraging word about the fair’s success or lack thereof. Surely, she must have known that we would never raise enough funds to fully pay for Mr. Smith’s kidney transplant. While she was dedicated to doing what she could to help, I realized that something else had motivated her: she wanted to set an example of kindness for me and those participating and show the importance of giving to others, even in a small way. Compassion was Mom’s greatest gift.
As I retold this decades-old story to the podcaster, who, like me, choked back tears, it dawned on me that Mom had also wanted Mr. Smith to feel there were people in the community who cared. Even though the fair didn’t raise enough money to save his life, he at least knew that strangers acknowledged his struggle and wished him well. When I considered Mom’s underlying motives, I felt better and could easily see how they had impacted my life as I grew into adulthood.
During my college years as a piano major, I volunteered in a music program for the local Community Outreach team. Years later, after volunteering for a start-up AIDS wish-granting foundation in Boston, I was hired as the “wish fairy” and began fulfilling requests for individuals in the later stages of the disease. I soon found that I had a knack for getting items donated, such as sewing machines, art supplies, trips to Disneyland, and restaurant gift certificates. This “knack” became a skill that launched a decade-long professional fundraising career, and later, a “gift” I gave away while volunteering for the Franz Liszt Music Academy in Budapest and organizing concerts for refugee musicians where I live in Helsinki. And so, Mom’s gift continues through me and others.
As you finish up your last-minute holiday shopping and wrap your presents for loved ones in colorful paper and bows, take a moment to consider what other gifts you have to offer them and those in need in your community. You may feel you lack the right skill or talent, but I believe that each of us has a unique gift to share, no matter how small. Perhaps you have a soothing voice and could read books to the blind, or you were born with a strong back that allows you to deliver groceries to homebound elders. Are you a patient person or a good listener? There are certainly a lot of people who could use a sounding board this challenging holiday season.
Whatever your gift, don’t hoard it, SHARE IT!
On that note, I’ll leave you with this Pablo Picasso quote: “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”
Merry Christmas to you and yours!