In Kind

Nick cannot hold onto gifts to save his soul. Once he’s purchased something – a birthday present, a Christmas package, a trinket from the airport – he has to give it to the intended recipient absolutely as soon as possible or his hair will fall out or something similarly dire. He’s just too excited; holding onto items for future giving is not going to happen.

It took me a few years to understand that his last-minute shopping wasn’t necessarily because he forgot about the upcoming event or because he didn’t put any thought into what he was purchasing. Okay, sometimes he forgets and needs to pick something up at the eleventh hour (thank God for Amazon Prime), but other times, it’s very purposeful because he knows he will simply burst with the anticipation of giving the gift.

I, on the other hand, tend to shop year-round for birthdays and Christmas. If I see something that is just right for a friend or my sisters-in-law or whoever, I’ll buy it – even if it’s July – and tuck it away until the “official” day arrives. This baffles Nick as much as his habits baffle me. Let’s just say that there have been a lot of compromises over the last two decades.

A few years back, we selected a hat for Bill (my father-in-law) on one of our family trips. I intended to hold onto it until Father’s Day – a bird in the hand, after all. Nick wanted to ship it off to Minnesota right then and there, just because. We argued. Nick won. He sent his dad the hat, which Bill happily wore. We lost Bill not too long after that, and I was damned glad that we’d mailed him the darned hat – just because.

For the last seven or so Christmases, I have made my grandma, Phoofsy, photo books containing pictures from the previous summer at the lake. Phoofsy adored photographs – she had them all over her apartment and the lake house – and just loved the photo books. She took them with her to the lake each summer and, whenever family visited, you could find someone poring over the many volumes, reliving another year’s memories.

This past Christmas, however, I didn’t make Phoofsy a book. You see, I’d already gotten her several gifts – ones I was quite pleased with, that I was sure she’d really like – and I figured, “Eh, why go overboard. I can make her a photo book for her birthday.” Naturally, because I had presented one to her each preceding Christmas, my grandma was eagerly awaiting the 2014 Lake Book and made it quite clear (as only she could) that she was bummed out that she didn’t receive one. I felt awful and vowed to create one in time for Valentine’s Day. And then Easter. And then Mother’s Day.

By mid-May, I felt annoyed enough with myself that I spent several very late nights on Shutterfly designing Phoofsy’s book and, when it was finally finished, ordering it with expedited shipping. It arrived the day before we were to head to the lake for Memorial Day weekend.

I almost didn’t pack it. Phoofsy’s birthday was only a month away and it would make a lovely 95th birthday present. But, for whatever reason, I changed my mind, brought it with us, and gave it to her the first night we were at the house. She spent a good half hour looking it over with Ella and Annie and I caught her intently going through the pages at least twice over the next few days. We came home on Memorial Day; that very night, she went to the hospital. Three days later, and oh so unexpectedly, she was gone.
Going through the book with the girls.

I cannot even express how grateful and happy and relieved I am that I didn’t hold onto that blasted book until her birthday.

I guess that’s the thing with giving, with kindness: it’s pretty much always a good idea, and you pretty much always feel better afterward. Sometimes, it can be a tangible gesture like volunteering at a homeless shelter. Other times, it’s Random Acts of Christmas Kindness. Or maybe it’s donating money to important causes. Whatever the case, whenever I’ve purposefully set out to give, to extend kindness, I’ve never regretted it.

The smallest acts of kindness are often the hardest. Telling someone that I like their outfit seems so simple, no? Just say it? But when the time comes to actually extend the compliment, I freeze up like that dream where you’re naked onstage (is that just me?) and all you can do is open and close your mouth like a fish. I imagine that the person will respond poorly or I’ll be embarrassed or – I don’t know – a gazillion other things. I worry that I’ll regret reaching out and being kind. Christmas will come and there will be no presents because I will have already given them away.

I’m selfish, though, and I like how I feel after I do something nice, so I’ve been trying to just say it, already… “That mumu is such a great color!” or “I love your mohawk!” And, hey – you know what? No regret. None at all! Just happiness, which is really pretty cool.

So it goes with all of the other small kindnesses, the ones that are the hardest to do. “Liking” someone’s Facebook status even though they didn’t say hi at the mall. Sending Christmas cards to people who don’t send them to us, year after year. Inviting someone to lunch even though I wasn’t included in the last get-together. Reaching out to former friends who had pulled away from my life.

Never once have I wished I’d been less kind. Kindness always feels good.

This isn’t to say that I’m some Mother Teresa. Have no fear – I can be a real jackass (just ask my children), and there are many, many moments when I choose not to give, not to extend goodwill to others. And, to be fair, there are times when extra sweetness is not only unnecessary but potentially damaging. When someone has deeply hurt you, it’s okay to pull back instead of reaching out. When you’re completely overwhelmed, it’s all right to avoid complimenting strangers at Starbucks. My daughters will not receive their birthday presents the moment that I purchase them because sometimes, waiting is okay. There is a never-ending list of needy and worthy organizations and causes and we cannot give to them all. It just isn’t possible. We have lines to draw.

All I’m saying is that when I have reached out, when I have donated, when I have told a friend I was happy her kid made the cut (while mine did not), when I have told someone I’m so sorry about the loss of their mother instead of staying silent, I’ve never wished I hadn’t.
first day girls
This photo really has nothing to do with anything, but I wanted to put another picture in and the girls had already pre-approved this one, so… Yay! First day!

Life is really damned uncertain. In the past two months alone, I have had friends move from Rochester, move to Rochester, lose their beloved pets, lose their jobs, lose their homes, lose their parents, and battle cancer. There have been ridiculously wonderful things, too – that’s how it goes with life, the joys and the horrors – but everything can change so fast. It’s tempting (and sometimes necessary) to hole up, to self-protect, to shut out. I need to treat myself well before I can do almost anything else.

But I also need to remember that kindness feels awesome – so, really, being kind is one of the best things I can do for me. And then I can give more to other folks, which feels super, so then I feel better. And I give more.

A kindness circle. How very 1970s.

This week, with school back in session, I’ve had a little time to get to things I didn’t do in the summer. While cleaning out a cupboard, I found some Harry Potter pencils that I purchased for the girls ages ago but never gave them because there wasn’t a specific reason to.

I think I’ll have them waiting on the counter when Ella and Annie arrive home. Maybe they’ll make doing homework just a bit more fun.


4 thoughts on “In Kind

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